SKIN AND BONE (Azuka Theatre): SoGoth Reinvented

L-R Drucie McDaniel and Maureen Torsney-Weir. Photo by Johanna Austin.
L-R Drucie McDaniel and Maureen Torsney-Weir. Photo by Johanna Austin.

In a culture that places heavier value on test scores than on the individual capacity for critical thought, you’re taught to associate. It doesn’t much matter if you’ve read the classics of various literary movements as long as you can identify the one-word nutshell into which modern academics have squeezed each one of them. Romanticism=emo; Modernism=artsy-fartsy; Postmodernism=weird. Southern Gothic literature—the school of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers—is no exception; if you answered grotesque, you get an A.

Like the other terms listed above, grotesque is a lazy distillation of all that the Southern Gothic tradition has to offer. However, the two terms are so inextricably linked that you simply can’t do neo-Southern Gothic nowadays without characters who are somehow damaged, either physically or psychologically. The aging fraternal twins at the center of SKIN AND BONE—who sport the folk tale-y names Midge (Maureen Torsney-Weir) and Madge (Drucie McDaniel)—can be argued into both categories. Their bodies, like the crumbling, condemned bed and breakfast they call home, are betraying them in their old age. Midge’s arthritis limits her ability to cook—oh, how she loved to cook—but not her ability to dominate her sister with her razor-sharp tongue. Madge’s submissiveness almost seems like a tradition to be upheld, and her newfound desire to violate that tradition and escape from the shadow of her sister comes at odds with her staggering vulnerability. The damage has long been done between these two, and even if Madge thought she could undo it she wouldn’t know where to start.

So far it sounds like pure Flannery O’Connor: an epic battle between the evil and the exploited, where the exploited party is too weak or too simple to fight back, and where evil always wins because of course it does. Luckily, however, playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger goes beyond the loose academic associations of Southern Gothic literature and creates a play—the second installment of her Southern Gothic trilogy, after the terrible girls—that pays close attention to the tradition and its many quirks. Goldfinger produces the genuine article where a lesser playwright might have lapsed into imitation or even parody; SKIN AND BONE is a slice of heightened reality where both the weirdness and the emotional resonance of the SoGoth classics are expanded to fit the stage.

It’s not all damaged psyches and regional drawls in SoGoth. Often, the characters (especially older folks) are defined by a sense of nostalgia that borders on delusion; we need look no further than Williams’ Blanche DuBois and Amanda Wingfield for aging belles who pine so thoroughly for a dead past that they’ve lost the ability to see the world as it really is. In SKIN AND BONE, the past plays a complicated role for Midge and Madge. The ghost of a past crime haunts the home they share, and while Madge tries to earn salvation through prolonged abstinence from bad thoughts and actions, her sister longs for a return to her sinful days, and her relentless temptation of Madge creeps stealthily toward a fever pitch.

On top of this tense sibling rivalry, two complications enter the lives of the sisters. The arrival of a boarder (Amanda Schoonover) searching for information about her late mother sparks a maternal instinct in Madge that adds a striking depth to the latter’s quest for redemption—with the side effect that it also amplifies Midge’s thirst for power. On the flipside (aka the less interesting side, plot-wise), the sisters’ dilapidated house has been condemned by the town and is due to be demolished. (Dirk Durossette’s set is a work of art all its own, detailed with torn screens and broken planks and the piss-brown stains of decades-old water damage.) Midge’s unreasonable, almost pathological attachment to the house grants Torsney-Weir some excellent fire-and-brimstone moments of indignant rage, and Nathan Holt is both funny and convincing as the aw-shucks Christian boy whose task it is to do the demolishing (and who stands about eleven feet taller than his castmates). However, I’m still not sure if this side of the plot is entirely necessary. With the sisters’ tortured history, their awkward present, and the clumsy yet resourceful young boarder who might dictate their future, it seems like there’s plenty going on without the prospect of losing the house, and as good as Holt is in his role, his character doesn’t add a whole lot to the experience of the play. I trust Goldfinger enough to know that there’s a good reason this plot is part of SKIN AND BONE—perhaps to emphasize the inevitable end of the sisters’ way of life?—and even when the plot is clunky, the writing never wavers. I just wonder if she’s trying to say more than she needs to.

Nonetheless, the house that Faulkner (and O’Connor and Williams and McCullers) built is safe in the hands of the Tallahassee-native Goldfinger. She’s equal parts progressive and preservationist, and the bold images brought forth by Allison Heishman’s production pay tribute to an aging style while also polishing and reinventing it. SKIN AND BONE is about the difficulty of erasing our past in order to protect our future, and Goldfinger’s verdict is as unforgiving as that of her artistic ancestors: you can’t. [The Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St.] March 5-March 25, 2014.

See Phindie contributor Kathryn Osenlund‘s review at CurtainUp for another perspective.

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