Kim Carpenter / The Omaha World Herald
On the surface, Cody Daigle-Orians’ “In the Bones” is about gay marriage, the war in Afghanistan and a family coping with suicide. But actually, it’s far less about the first, much more about the second and third, and ultimately about so much more than all three combined.
The two-act play, which made its Midwest debut Friday at the SNAP/Shelterbelt Theatre, was a wholly riveting, frequently funny and painfully gut-wrenching examination of those topics, which, although timely, weren’t as important to the drama as it might have first appeared. Instead, “In the Bones” worked and worked well because it emerged as an insightful, often surprising study of how little we know about the people we love most.
Director M. Michele Phillips brought together a solid six-person cast to create stagecraft timed with the right balance of painful silences, agonized shouting and awkward interactions. The story begins with an end: Luke (Eric Grant-Leanna), a soldier who has returned from his second tour of Afghanistan, has just committed suicide.
His loved ones — mother Dee (Sally Neumann Scamfer), lover Ben (Dan Luethke), aunt Kate (Stephanie Anderson) and sister Chloe (Corie Grant-Leanna) — gather at his funeral. As the script unfolds, they move ahead three years, joined in the process by Kenny, Luke’s former brother-in-arms (David Mainelli), and grapple to understand why Luke took his own life, each struggling to cope with it in their own ways.
Of paramount importance is getting to know Luke, which Daigle-Orians makes possible through video clips that the ex-soldier made to make himself feel better about accidentally killing a boy during his second tour. “Say something nice,” he jokingly says to his mother, sister and lover. None of them can respond with something meaningful, but when Luke turns the camera on himself in a dark room, he, too, is at a loss for words.
While much is made of Luke and Ben’s relationship, gay marriage was a red herring. Kenny believes marriage should be defined between a man and a woman, but he accepts his fellow vet’s sexuality. Chloe and Kate accept and evidently adore Ben. Although Luke comes out to Dee during a disastrous Sunday dinner, she is not specifically upset that he is gay. Instead, she’s incensed that she did not know. “Four years!” she fumes, when she finds out how long Ben and Luke have been together. “Four years!” Chloe knew. Kate knew. Kate’s husband knew. Why didn’t she?
Not knowing is what emerges as “In the Bones’ ” most compelling theme. That explains Dee’s twisted anguish, which Neumann Scamfer plays with palpable angst. She gives a devastating performance that provides the rubric through which to view the entire play, and even Kate’s glib lines — delivered with brassy bawdiness by Anderson — can’t dull the edge of Dee’s pain at losing her son. Neumann Scamfer depicts this character with inimitable intensity; she makes you double guess what she missed, what she should have seen if she were paying attention.
Dee can’t be blamed, though. Few of us ever really pay attention — at least not completely — to our loved ones. This is what makes “In the Bones” such powerful drama. It resonates because of the lingering questions we have when dealing with the people closest to us. How well do we know them? If, indeed, we even do.