A few years ago, an amazing exhibit called “The Human Body” toured the country, displaying human bodies devoid of skin, so that one could see muscles, tendons, bones, even organs uncovered by skin.
So I was wondering what playwright Johnna Adams had in mind for her play “Skinless,” playing through Dec. 8 at Moxie Theatre, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.
The play turns out to be an uneasy mishmash of feminist theory, family saga and horror story.
It starts with an academic argument, as graduate student Emmi Falco (Anna Rebek) and her advisor Sylvia Diaz (Rhona Gold) tangle about Emmi’s dissertation topic. Emmi wants to explore the works of Zinnia Wells, a little-known female writer of horror stories, partly because she is from that part of the South and has access to Zinnia’s last surviving sister.
While arguing about the topic, they also wrangle about feminist theory. Sylvia’s stance is that the only way women can get deserved recognition is to gain power. Emmi is more of a “can’t we all get along” theorist.
Sylvia reluctantly agrees to Emmi’s plan – though she thinks Zinnia a less than proper topic – and the rest of the play switches back and forth between Sylvia’s office and a rural Georgia farm, home to Wells sisters Marigold (Lisel Gorell-Getz), Zinnia (Jo Anne Glover), Bluebell (Erin Petersen) and Chryssie (Amanda Morrow). Scenic designer Jerry M. Sonnenberg makes this easy, with both locations on the stage.
The girls (who range in age from 18 to 40-something) also take care of their (unseen) dying mother – and talk about killing her for an unmentioned dastardly deed – though eldest sister Marigold reminds them that their sole source of income (her annuity) will die with her.
The Wells girls don’t seem to have much to do, so while sister Chryssie obsessively nails and removes nails from a section of the front porch, Zinnia amuses them by reading to them from her latest horror novel “Skinless,” a strange tale about people who live in the forest whose skin gradually disappears, leaving them “exposed” and “free” while presumably still alive. (I’ll resist the temptation to make a bad joke about transparency and let skinlessness pass as some sort of metaphor).
Zinnia’s best audience is youngest sister Bluebell, who has thus far resisted Marigold’s attempts to enroll her in nursing school.
Zinnia’s story is weird and mildly engaging. It might make a good novel, but reading it doesn’t make very good theater. One of theater’s first rules is “show, don’t tell,” and long stretches of reading become tedious.
The actors cannot be faulted. It falls to Glover to bring Zinnia’s story to life. She is faultless in interactions with other cast members, and does better than anyone has a right to expect when “reading” the text.
Gorell-Getz is excellent as the elder sister trying to keep the household together until Mama’s death when – presumably – the sisters will leave and begin their own lives.
Gold and Rebek play well off each other as professor and student (their power struggle obvious), though their interactions might be better used as the basis of another play.
As the younger sisters, Morrow’s mostly mute Chryssie and Petersen’s near-child Bluebell may or may not be indications of just how strange this family is, but the actors do what they can to portray them convincingly.
There are some interesting ideas here, but ultimately its structure sinks “Skinless” as a theater piece.
“Skinless” plays through Dec. 8 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd.
Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.
Tickets: (858) 598-7620 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.