The beauty of love is most potent when its departure is close at hand. Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries is about a relationship defined by absence. Its characters spend short periods together, sharing brief moments of intensity through each significant age, and then disappear from each other’s lives for years after. Kayleen and Doug’s romance is an eternal flower that does not bear fruit. They do not become partners, spouses or lovers but their bond grows stronger with each passing year. Their story is a tragic one, and Joseph’s script is filled with poignancy, shifting from the very light to the deeply sorrowful, constantly alternating between laughter and tears to tell a moving tale that no person can react with indifference. The events may not have happened to any of us, but we understand all the feelings involved, and this is a production that allows us to luxuriate in all the joy and pain that the couple has experienced.
The outrageously accident-prone Doug is played by Aaron Glenane, whose magnificence in the role cannot be overstated. His authenticity is immediate and thorough, and whether performing slapstick or catastrophe, he always remains believable and compelling. The brightness of the actor’s energy gives the stage a liveliness that captivates us, and his warm presence creates a likability in his character that holds our empathy from scene one to the end. Glenane is perfect in the part, and his work here is impeccable. Also engaging is Megan McGlinchey who takes on the role of Kayleen with a fierce sense of commitment and remarkable focus. McGlinchey is less effective in sequences that require her to portray her character’s later years, but the honesty in her acting provides an integrity to her work that sustains our empathy even when her narrative is missing the purity of Doug’s. The actors form a formidable pair, with an extraordinary chemistry between them that makes the production gleam with magic.
Anthony Gooley’s direction places emphasis on extracting brave and extravagant creative choices from his cast. The piece has a sense of grandness in the volume at which it portrays human emotion that comes from the sheer corporeality that is presented before our eyes. What Gooley has delivered is more than an accurate implementation of Joseph’s writing, it is an amplification, one that is dramatic, powerful and uncompromisingly visceral. The story spans thirty years, and the sentiments represented are correspondingly deep. Passion is conspicuous on this stage, and the director’s efforts at making its presence felt are commendable. The inventive use of space shows creative flair, and along with an accomplished design team comprising Toby Knyvett (lights) and Tyler Hawkins (set and costumes), visual design is noticeably elegant. The variation in atmosphere between scenes is efficiently and sensitively executed, with imaginative input from sound designers David Stalley, David Couri and Philip Orr.
This is an exceptional production that showcases brilliant acting, tells an exciting story, and issues a reminder of what heartbreak feels like. Love cannot be explained in words, but it can be enacted in the theatre, as Gruesome Playground Injuries does, to enormous satisfaction.