At first blush, a play about organ donation might not have you rushing to the box office. But Playwright Michael Hollinger’s Under the Skin, which plays at Everyman Theatre through February 21st, holds a number of surprises. At the beginning of the show, the 4-person cast assembles on stage and addresses the audience directly. Raina, played by Resident Company Member Megan Anderson, declares that this is not a show about kidneys. It is, she explains, a play about the “boundaries of the body and the limits of love.” That’s partly true. Under the Skin is, in fact, about a kidney transplant – but it is also so much more.
Dealing with complicated familial relationships, expectations and estrangements, as well as the emotional and practical aspects of organ donation, this is a family drama that manages to also be really funny. I’ve actually watched things billed as comedies that provided far fewer laughs. I found the levity both welcome and important, as it facilitates the exploration of some serious issues without becoming depressing or preachy.
Lou, played by Mitchell Hébert, has been estranged from his daughter, Raina, for years. Arriving at her door unexpectedly, he explains that without a kidney transplant, he will not be seeing many more birthdays. Thus begins Raina’s struggle. Lou wasn’t much of a dad, but he is her father, right? What responsibilities and obligations come along with that relationship? While looking into what being a donor would entail, Raina meets Jarrell (Keith L. Royal Smith); he is charming, handsome and also a potential kidney donor. Jarrell’s perspectives on gratitude and duty, family, and the prospect of being a donor differ from Raina’s dramatically. They do have some things in common, though, and watching how their relationship evolves through the play is a pleasure. Actors Anderson and Smith have excellent chemistry and deliver both banter and more serious dialogue with expert skill and timing. Smith additionally plays the minor role of Lou’s nurse, Hector. An inconsistent Latino accent distracts from this performance a bit, but overall, Smith’s work in this show is exemplary.
Alice M. Gatling is another multi-character actor in this show. Having performed the roles of Marlene, Dr. Badu, and the Barista in Under the Skin’s world premiere run in Philadelphia last year, Gatling owns each of these roles. She has a commanding stage presence and plays each of the characters so distinctly, it could be easy to forget that they were all portrayed by the same actor. Her performance as Marlene, Jarrell’s mom, is nuanced and beautifully confident. My favorite of her roles, though, was Dr. Badu; she got all the best jokes.
Mitchell Hébert, as Lou, had the challenging task of embodying a number of conflicting personality traits. Lou was a gruff and somewhat unapologetic absentee father, yet he needed a very big favor from his kid. Hébert nimbly navigates his complicated family relationships and his feelings about his often damaging past behavior. Despite Lou’s faults and failings, Hébert made the character a person for whom I felt sympathy.
The work of the offstage team that brought this show together was also spot-on. The Director, Vincent Lancisi – who is also Everyman’s Founding Artistic Director – brought together this talented cast and elicited great performances from each actor. Scenic Director Brandon McNeel created a versatile set that changed from a sterile hospital room to a café as easily as rotating the hospital bed. The walls surrounding the stage were designed in a clever, modular way that allowed changes of other set pieces to be done so quickly and seamlessly that I found myself thinking “was that couch always there?”
The translucency of the walls gave Lighting Designer Jay Herzog even more opportunities than usual to demonstrate his considerable skills. Under the Skin is a special show for Herzog in a number of ways. This show is the designer’s 50th production at Everyman and, during the run, he will celebrate the one-year anniversary of receiving a liver transplant.
Everyman Theatre will be donating a portion of the proceeds of Under the Skin to four organ donation organizations – The Living Legacy Foundation, The Kidney Foundation of MD, Donate Life Maryland, and TRIO Maryland. In partnership with these organizations and in honor of National Donor Day, Everyman will be hosting a special event following the February 14th matinee. Patrons will be invited to hear the personal stories of organ donors, recipients and their families. Attendees with organ donation and transplant experiences will be welcome to share their stories, as well.
Also, at every performance of Under the Skin, there will be volunteers from the partner organizations in the lobby of the theater before and after the show. The representatives will be wearing green pins to indicate they are available to discuss organ donation, transplants, and their own related stories. It is truly commendable that with the production of this thought-provoking, comedic show,
Everyman Theatre has taken the opportunity to benefit the community in all these ways. So dig your car out and head to Everyman to see Under the Skin. It’s a very enjoyable night of theatre that also supports a very important cause.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.