The director and cast explain how ‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’ is all about healing.
A playwright walks into a bar. He bumps into an old, accident-prone friend. They get to talking and wind up comparing childhood scars. That’s when the playwright has his “ah-ha” moment. Scars make great milestones for relationships. And that’s a great idea for a play. The playwright quickly scribbles the idea on a napkin.
Rajiv Joseph was the playwright in question. The play he ultimately wrote was “Gruesome Playground Injuries.” It’s FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s latest production, directed by Ashley Teague and starring Alex Rodriguez and Anna Newbury.
Joseph’s one-act wonder explores the bond between characters Doug and Kayleen. They meet as children in a school nurse’s office after, well, gruesome playground injuries, and their relationship continues over the next few decades. So do the injuries. It’s an unconventional love story, told unconventionally. Joseph’s characters are unstuck in time — the scenes shift back and forth to different moments of their lives. As the time-shifting action unfolds, you gradually figure out why they’re stuck in cycles of hurt.
That might sound like a pain, but Teague and the actors are happy to explain why it’s a joy.
How would you describe this play?
Teague: It’s hard to pin down, but I can tell you what it isn’t. “Gruesome Playground Injuries” is definitely not a conventional love story. It’s funny; it’s quirky; it’s moving; it’s smart and constantly flipping your expectations. That’s true for the characters but also in terms of structure.
Teague: We’re jumping around in time, either 15 years forward or 10 years back. Each scene means a full costume and set change. We use these transitions for storytelling and keeping the audience engaged.
What’s the most fun about directing this play?
Teague: Wow, where do I start? Joseph’s writing is sharp. There’s a gold mine of scenes, and I love his characters. Kayleen and Doug are such raw, real, gritty, funny brave people. They’re not always their best selves, but you can’t help falling in love with them.
What’s been your greatest directorial challenge?
Teague: The transitions. The author specifically says: “All costume changes should occur on stage. There’s no need to hide any of this work from the audience.”
Newbury: We also have to change the set.
That sounds like hard work. Why go to all that trouble?
Teague: I’d say … keeping the changes in plain sight is a way of saying there’s nothing to hide. It feels like reality, not stagecraft.
I assume this unique play offers unique lessons for the student actors?
Teague: Absolutely. There are only two actors on stage, living through different ages in their lives.
So, Alex and Anna are playing the same characters, but their characters aren’t the same from scene to scene?
Teague: Exactly. Successfully conveying that demands a high level of performance. Anna and Alex have to communicate who Kayleen and Doug are at any given moment in their emotional journey. Their characterizations have to be very nuanced and specific to do that effectively.
Why do these characters keep hurting themselves?
Teague: I think it’s because they’re both incredibly impulsive. They’re full of the vigor of life — maybe too much life. The characters act that out in spontaneous ways that often involve a trip to the emergency room.
How would you define the characters?
Newbury: Kayleen is the wounded healer archetype. She had a rough childhood. She’s damaged — but juxtaposed to that, she can heal other people’s damage. Kayleen’s fighting through her hurt and has something profound to offer the world. It’s a beautiful quality that others can see but [that] she doesn’t recognize in herself.
Rodriguez: When I first started rehearsing, I saw Doug as a dopey high school jock. Then I started to find surprising depths in him and admire the way he navigates through life. The young Doug is a bright, optimistic spirit. As you watch him grow from age 8 to 38, you can definitely see how each injury changes him. You start to wonder why he’s always jumping off roofs, climbing telephone poles and constantly getting hurt.
What’s the main takeaway for the audience?
Rodriguez: You see the highs and lows of Doug and Kayleen’s relationship over the span of 30 years — all the connections and misconnections in their journey. Those moments where they really see and be with each other make it all worth it.
Newbury: I totally agree. In the end, I think this is a very optimistic play. Life is hard; pain and problems are constantly thrown at you. But you’ll survive and find joy, even in miserable times.
Teague: The heart of this play is the resilience of love and the human spirit. It’s a timeless love story. That story has been done to death in so many different ways — but you’ve never seen it like this. I guarantee you’ll be on the edge of your seat.