Ugly Lies the Bone follows the story of Jess, a young woman returning home following 3 tours in Afghanistan, which have left her with severe burns after an IED. Struggling to fit back into her old life in her declining Florida home town, and struggling to cope with her disability and chronic pain, Jess becomes involved in a virtual reality therapy program. The disembodied voice of a therapist guides her through this experience, helping her create new worlds to overcome her pain and frustration.
Although it sounds like a product of fantasy, the virtual reality therapy at the centre of Ugly Lies the Bone is actually based in reality: the world Jess visits is based on SnowWorld, a virtual reality experience created in the late 90s and used to help victims of severe burns with chronic pain. Although SnowWorld itself is no longer in use, it has led to the creation of other virtual reality experiences and technology – one of these is Cool!, a snowscape populated by otters and floating fireballs, which has been used in experimental trials to treat sufferers of chronic pain – and these real world implications add an interesting extra dimension to the play.
The production itself is visually striking. The stage is a hemisphere with sloping sides, giving an interesting depth to the virtual reality moments, and the play transitions smoothly between the surreal world of the virtual reality program and the unremarkable reality of Jess’ hometown. This beautifully mirrors Jess’ shifting emotional states – her hesitant wonder at the world created by the virtual reality and the awkward pain of being a poor fit for her old life.
Kate Fleetwood is a compelling Jess, fluidly shifting between drawing laughs with her delivery of dry and sarcastic humour, and heart rending raw emotion in her portrayal of physical and emotional struggles. She is particularly brilliant at capturing the physical difficulties Jess faces due to her multiple skin grafts: her movements capture the physical pain as well as the psychological toll the changes to her body are exerting. In one particularly unforgettable scene, Jess attempts to change from her comfortable ‘boys clothes’ to a pretty dress – Fleetwood beautifully captures Jess’s physical struggle against her own body, as well her emotional turmoil at wanting the dress.
The rest of the cast certainly doesn’t let her down. Ralf Little is endearing as Stevie, Jess’ awkward former boyfriend. Their interactions are emotionally charged, at first with the awkwardness of change, but evolving gradually into a complex portrait of love and loss and regret. Olivia Darnley plays Jess’ sister Kacie who struggles to support Jess’ recovery. Though it sometimes feels forced and cliché, her cheerfulness and relentless optimism are a great contrast to Jess’ pain and frustration.
The play is not without its flaws: though the characters are emotional and compelling, their interactions are sometimes predictable and lack emotional depth. The virtual reality too has its shortcomings; although visually striking, it lacks the emotional impact of Fleetwood’s performance.
Despite this, it’s undeniable that Ugly Lies the Bone leaves an impression. The strong cast and storytelling as well as the visual beauty of the virtual reality combine to create a truly immersive experience.