'the bandaged place' review — moving new play captures the messiness of trauma and healing
To get right to the point: Harrison David Rivers's the bandaged place has no cuts or holes that need bandaging up. Every plot point, every character, every moment in this nearly perfect new play, presented by Roundabout Underground, has been stitched together perfectly. It will make your heart bleed in many different ways; it is a thoughtful and excellent meditation on the long and winding road to healing.
The story centers on a dancer named Jonah, who just got out of a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. And yet, Ruben, his ex, manages to slink back into his life, knowing Jonah can't resist — restraining order be damned. Jonah is better at pushing away his grandmother Geraldine and eight-year-old daughter Ella, partly out of shame, and partly as a continuation of a broken family cycle. His grandmother had pushed his mother away, who then abandoned him in childhood.
It's a dense plot for only five characters (Sam, Jonah's new lover, adds yet another layer and rounds out the count), but a sublime cast, bolstered by clear writing, tackle it with ease. Stephanie Berry, a not-so-hidden gem of the Off-Broadway scene, mines every depth of Geraldine as she actively works to make up for past mistakes with her daughter. She acts as a great foil to Jhardon DiShon Milton's volatile Jonah, who's still learning to do that; Phoenix Noelle (at the performance I attended) rounded out the family as Ella with poise. Separately, as Sam, the endearing Jake Ryan Lozano perfectly foiled Anthony Lee Medina, who brought a stomach-turning blend of sadism and sexiness to Ruben.
Every bit of their dialogue feels not only character-appropriate, but legitimately authentic. Rivers offsets Ella's precociousness, for example, with an adorably naive declaration of how relationships work: "Everyone knows about boyfriends, Nana. Almost all the girls in my class have one." That line is part of an expertly crafted scene of two conversations happening in parallel: Geraldine explains Ruben and Jonah's history in childlike terms, while Jonah does the same for Sam in adult terms. (the bandaged place may trigger those sensitive to abuse, including a terrifying moment of violence that is heard but, mercifully, unseen.)
Rivers seemingly leaves no detail of his play unconsidered. One scene shows Ruben gifting a necklace to Jonah, an effective metaphor for the hold Ruben has on him, even when he's absent. And there was a moment, just as I was thinking that Ruben hadn't been on stage for a while, when he suddenly appears. Whether this pacing was deliberate or not, it evidenced how trauma has a way of creeping back up just when you think it's gone.
Luckily, there are moments of lightness too, such as the tender courtship between Sam and Jonah that almost seems to perfect to be true. There's also a recurring theme of dance as a means of catharsis: From struggling to dance at the beginning as his memories (and a wounded knee, both courtesy of Ruben), paralyze him, Jonah makes progress by goofily dancing with Sam, and has a final breakthrough via a fierce pas de deux that depicts his and Ruben's entire journey. (The excellent choreography is by Tislarm Bouie.)
Though the bandaged place shows Jonah's considerable progress toward healing, the play avoids a neatly tied-up ending. Rivers doesn't suggest that Jonah and Sam will live happily ever after, or that Ruben will never reappear, or that Jonah and his family have fully patched up their troubles; doing so would have undermined the entire story. The ending reminds us that working through trauma is a messy and potentially neverending process, but there is hope.
Photo credit: Sasha Manuel and Jhardon Dishon Milton in the Roundabout Underground production of the bandaged place. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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