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Theater review: ‘Bones’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

August 2, 2010 | 11:07 am

There’s a double-whammy irony about the power of the past to shape our lives: the more traumatic the event, the less reliable our ability to recall it accurately -- and the more remote the possibility of moving past it becomes. Such is the equation of psychological paralysis that playwright Dael Orlandersmith charts with devastating effect in the limited-run premiere of “Bones” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. 

An original work commissioned and presented with a stellar cast by Center Theatre Group, “Bones” depicts the soul-baring reunion of a family fractured by a repressed history of child abuse. Amid the most neutral, depersonalized of settings -- a drab airport hotel in Newark -- 30-year-old siblings Leah (Tessa Auberjonois) and Stephen (Tory Kittles) arrive to do battle with the demons that are the legacy of their embittered alcoholic mother, Claire (Khandi Alexander).  

Leah and Stephen may be twins, but there is no bond or love lost between them; all they have in common is a stance of lonely isolationism. Auberjonois’ edgy Leah, a failed artist who’s always felt more connected to words and images than to people, desperately clings to the belief that her drinking is somehow “creative” and therefore different from her mother’s downward spiral; Kittles’ tightly wound Stephen keeps himself untouchable behind a wall of material overachievement. 

Something monstrous happened to them when they were 6, but exactly what -- and how much of the blame lay with Claire, with their now-deceased father or with each other -- is a mystery that’s driven Leah to gather the survivors in an attempt to resolve. As the encounter unfolds, the phenomenal Alexander invests Claire’s every inflection and gesture with formidable potency and meaning,  seamlessly modulating from mocking observer to defiant defendant to self-pitying victim.  

  In little more than an hour and Bones2without a wasted word, Orlandersmith’s lean, sure-handed  text evokes the psychic demolition derby between these damaged characters. Gordon Edelstein’s staging shows admirable rapport with the author’s unique literary voice, signaling  with Lap Chi Chu’s stark lighting cues her signature abrupt shifts between characters’ external dialog and their tortured interior reflections and memories, and punctuating the jazzlike cadences in her use of language with live free-form accompaniment by Nedra Wheeler on acoustic bass and Doug Webb on saxophone.

For greater intimacy than the venue usually affords, the audience is seated on one half of the curtained-off stage area facing Takeshi Kata’s drab hotel  room set, above which a suspended doorway at an askew angle beckons like a portal into lost memory.

It’s a threshold the characters are unable to cross, and therein lies their tragedy. Torn between their desire to uncover the truth and their attachment to the realities they each need to believe in (think “Rashomon” meets Sigmund Freud), they can’t even agree on circumstantial details, let alone determine where responsibility lies. 

-- Philip Brandes

“Bones,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $20. (213) 628-2772 or Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

Photos: Top: Khandi Alexander, with Tory Kittles.  Bottom: Tessa Auberjonois and Kittles. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times