by Clark Groome
While kidney transplants may be the hook on which former Mt. Airy resident Michael Hollinger (now of Elkins Park) has hung “Under the Skin,” his latest play, it’s really about family, what that means and how families can be incredibly dysfunctional and anything but the “Fathers Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet” ideal while still being, at a core level, “family.”
Like many of this impressive playwright’s work, “Under the Skin” is getting its world premiere production at the Arden Theatre Company, where it will be until March 15.
Lou Ziegler (Douglas Rees in a role originally played by Craig Spidle, who had to withdraw for medical reasons) is a talented carpenter who had a roving eye and couldn’t keep his zipper zipped.
When he gets sick and needs a kidney transplant, he goes to his estranged daughter Raina Lamott (Julianna Zinkel), who had taken her mother’s name because Lou wouldn’t come when her mother was on her deathbed. He was always too busy, so he said.
Initially unsure about whether or not she wants to help her father, she ultimately visits him in the hospital and tries to work out her feelings. While filling out the transplant paperwork needed if she decides to donate and is a match, she meets Jarrell Hayes (Biko Eisen-Martin), with whom she has a passionate evening.
With some improbable and contrived twists that I won’t spoil, let it be said that things get surprisingly complicated and challenge the definition of family. It’s a well-written and often funny play about issues that are at the core of family relationships. The message, as we learn at the end of the piece, is that under the skin all 7.1 billion of us are family.
For all its contrivances and somewhat preachy messages, “Under the Skin” is an enjoyable and challenging play. Thanks to director Terrence J. Nolan’s simple direction, the message and the characters, not all of whom are particularly pleasant company, are clearly portrayed by an able cast on James Kronzer’s minimalist set. Thom Weaver, Alison Roberts and Jorge Cousineau are solid lighting, costume and sound designers.
Kudos to Douglas Rees for jumping into his role as Lou when Spidle withdrew. He’s very good, even in those few scenes in act II when he’s got the script nearby. While Zinkel and Eisen-Martin are fine in their roles (Eisen-Martin has two: Jarrell and Lou’s nurse, Hector), I was most impressed by Alice M. Gatling’s performances as Jarrell’s mother, Lou’s doctor and a barista with attitude.
“Under the Skin” isn’t Hollinger’s best work, but it is often smart, appropriately funny and raises issues that are, perhaps not in the extremes seen here, relevant to all.
For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.