Review | UI Theatre Department’s ‘Ugly Lies the Bone’ is an honest depiction of hope and recovery

On April 21, the UI Theatre Department presented ‘Ugly Lies the Bone,’ a powerful play about healing from painful physical and emotional scars.

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Ayrton Breckenridge

The University of Iowa Department of Theatre building is seen on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter


A stage hung with picture frames, set with a chandelier of photographs and a cluttered kitchen table, and a screen in front of which a woman reclines in an armchair knitting. This is how “Ugly Lies the Bone” begins as the lights dim over the audience.

The University of Iowa Theatre Department presented “Ugly Lies the Bone” on April 21 a play about the war of recovery a veteran faces after she returns home from war. The production will run until April 29.

Written by Lindsey Ferrentino in 2015, the play has been performed at the Black Box Theater by Roundabout Underground and at the Lyttelton Theatre by the Royal National Theatre. The UI Theatre Department’s production was directed by Mary Beth Easley.

Allison Sass played Jess, a war veteran with three tours under her belt who was honorably discharged after experiencing near-fatal injuries from an IED explosion in Afghanistan. She returned to her hometown of Titusville on Florida’s Space Coast to begin healing from both physical and emotional trauma.

Sass’s performance was incredible. Physically limited by her character who has a disability, she mastered subtlety with powerful facial expressions and a strong voice. She exhibited Jess’s pain with respect, carrying herself like it was her own burden.

Jess’s headstrong and warm-hearted sister Kacie was played by Katie Gucik. Kacie cared for and protected her sister, often walking a fine line between holding herself together and completely falling apart. Gucik brought Kacie to life with a struggle to restrain her emotions and natural acting that felt almost maternal.

The relationship between these sisters was one of the foundational pillars of the play. With their mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, they were each other’s only family.

Jess’s ex-boyfriend Stevie, played by Michael Taylor, balanced Jess’s darker humor with his lighter optimism and bubbliness. He was a tie to the life Jess left behind before the explosion and a beacon of hope in her new life.

Kolton Stremler played Kelvin, Kacie’s boyfriend, who Jess strongly dislikes before realizing that he might not have been who she thought he was.

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During the play, Jess participated in virtual reality therapy that helped her heal by presenting her with games to challenge her physical movement and strengthen her skin grafts.

The disembodied voice that behaved like a doctor observing from behind a screen insisted that Jess keep moving forward instead of lingering on what she used to look like and how she used to feel. As it turned out, what had really been preventing Jess from healing was how her scars would impact one person’s perception of her: Her mother.

As amazing as the acting in this production was, the lighting and sound effects were also highly effective. Projections on the wall of the theater displayed Jess’s thoughts and reflections on what she used to look like, while songs communicated her state of mind.

When Jess found herself missing who she used to be, soft lullaby music played. When her trauma was triggered, it was replaced by head-banging rock.

Lighting also functioned as a transition between scenes by illuminating two doorways, one of which led to the house Jess shared with Kacie, while the other led to the gas station where Stevie worked. Jess’s struggle to decide which doorway to pass through each time seemed to represent her hesitancy in continuing and her resilience in making a choice.

“Ugly Lies the Bone” is a story of finding strength and hope in the darkest of times. Jess’s fight did not end on the battlefield. Instead, she was faced with a different kind of battle that required her to rediscover her purpose and resilience.

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