Éanna O'Dowd and India Shaw-Smith in the Untold Wants Theatre production of Gruesome Playground Injuries.
Éanna O'Dowd and India Shaw-Smith in the Untold Wants Theatre production of Gruesome Playground Injuries.

It seems every couple of years Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries makes an appearance on a Vancouver stage. With local productions in 2014, 2016 and 2017, the latest to take on this unconventional love story is indie theatre company Untold Wants Theatre.

For this outing, it is in focusing on the backstories of the characters that director Jessica Aquila Cymerman says will set it apart from past productions.

With the actors having delved into aspects of family life, social, economic and societal influences of its two characters, Cymerman says it will lead audiences to a deeper understanding of the story. It will also help them to discover the justification as to why the two characters in Gruesome Playground Injuries are unable to be together.

“Our amazing actors, Éanna O’Dowd and India Shaw-Smith have done extensive backstory research to build these characters so specifically, that hopefully, their choices in the scenes will fill in those questions of why,” says Cymerman.

Don’t let its evocative title fool you, though. While the injuries are genuine, they are merely the backdrop to an unconventional love story as it tells the story of the relationship between Doug and Kayleen over thirty years. In Joseph’s dark comedy, the two are brought together by injury, heartbreak, and self-destructive tendencies.

“It’s about the walls we put up around ourselves to protect ourselves from vulnerability or letting the world in,” explains Cymerman. “These characters deal with their fears of intimacy or being seen in these self-destructive ways. But now they’ve found another person that does the same thing, so it’s about their journey through life together and apart. It’s also about how love can look different from a lot of the stories we’re used to seeing.”

“I'm most excited to show the lighter side of a lifelong friendship and love where everything that can go wrong does. We all need a laugh right now.” - Jessica Aquila Cymerman
“I’m most excited to show the lighter side of a lifelong friendship and love where everything that can go wrong does. We all need a laugh right now.” – director Jessica Aquila Cymerman

For Cymerman, it was the opportunity to dig into the nuances of these two characters that first attracted her to the project.

“I also love to show people that might be outside of the norm,” she continues. “Doug and Kayleen show love to each other and care in a way that isn’t obvious on the surface, but that is deeper than a lot of the love stories we’re fed. They see each other in a way many characters don’t and getting to see the actors portray that has been beautiful.”

With its title conjuring images of a horror story, Cymerman goes onto say it is not scary in the classic horror sense. Instead, it alludes to the way they treat each other and why they are unable to leave the psychology of the injuries behind them and be happy together.

“The injuries themselves are a little gory, but that’s the extent of it,” says Cymerman. “It’s more about the stunted emotions of one who lives in the gruesome playground of their mind.”

While Gruesome Playground Injuries is a workout for its actors as it takes place at different times in its characters’ lives from ages eight to 38, it is the non-linear way in which Joseph tells the story that Cymerman found most exciting as a director.

“We see the characters at 8, 23, 13, so on, all out of order,” she says. “We did extensive work to narrow down all of the actual years and months in which the scenes take place, so the actors know exactly where they are in time and place. It’s very fun to see these amazing, talented actors take on ages 8 to 38. My favourite has to be 13.”

And while on its surface the play’s premise may be dark, Cymerman says that alongside the vulnerability, heart and injuries, Gruesome Playground Injuries is also funny.

“Because the characters are kindred spirits, their reparté is sometimes cutting and infectious,” she says. “I’m most excited to show the lighter side of a lifelong friendship and love where everything that can go wrong does. We all need a laugh right now.”

It is in that need to laugh and feel empathy that Cymerman says audiences need right now and a big reason why Gruesome Playground Injuries is making an appearance at the start of the new decade and Valentine’s Day. “And because it’s a darker, alternative love story, I think a lot of people will like the fact that it’s almost anti-Valentine’s Day. ‘Palentine’s Day’ if you will.”

Gruesome Playground Injuries opens at The Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) on February 5 and continues through February 15. Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information.