‘Under the Skin’ at the Arden

What do we owe each other?

One of my favorite New York Post headlines from years ago read something like “Angry Sister Wants Kidney Back.” And that got me thinking about the kinds of sacrifices we are willing to make for another person, especially a family member, and what we expect in return. Michael Hollinger’s new play Under the Skin, about a father in need of a kidney transplant, asks us to consider what we would do for family, even when that family hasn’t treated us all that well.

Swapping body fluids: Eisen-Martin and Zinkel. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

There’s an assumption underlying this dark comedy that one ought to be able to get an organ and go on living just because one wants to. Lou Ziegler (played ably by Douglas Rees, who stepped in when the actor originally cast, Craig Spidle, was unable to continue for health reasons) is not the most sympathetic of organ recipients. He was a hard-drinking womanizer who cheated on his late wife, wasn’t there for his daughter, and now wants to manipulate everyone to get what he wants, to keep on living, although what he wants to live for is never discussed. Does he want to atone? Does he want to create beautiful things? Life, it seems, is worth living just because one wants to.

Lou is not self-reflective. He never apologizes for the things he’s done. He shows up on his daughter’s doorstep without warning and practically demands her kidney as his right as her father. He tells his daughter he’s sorry at one point, but it feels more like an attempt to get his way than repentance. And should it matter?

A mindfulness bell

Angry and resentful, daughter Raina (Julianna Zinkel) is nothing but self-aware. She has a mindfulness bell on her cell phone that dings at awkward times to remind her to pay attention to what she’s doing. When Lou arrives late on a Sunday night asking for her help, she sends him away without even letting him see his granddaughter, whose name he can never quite remember. Then she reconsiders because he is, after all, her father.

“Do you want to do this?” the doctor (Alice M. Gatling) asks her. “I want to be the kind of person who would,” Raina replies.

Then Raina meets Jarrell (Biko Eisen-Martin), another potential organ donor with whom she wants to share another kind of bodily fluid. They walk around with their urine-collection containers reminding us of all those unpleasant things the body does.   

Organ donation is one of those things we don’t really want to think about, and yet we make decisions about this all the time and then pretend we haven’t. When you get a driver’s license in Pennsylvania, you can choose to be designated as an organ donor. When you fill out a health care directive, you say in advance whether or not you are willing to donate or receive an organ.

Foreign substances

But do we really understand what it means? I had a transfusion once. It wasn’t an easy decision. Blood supplies at the time were not as monitored as they are today. But it wasn’t the fear of someone else’s illness that got me. It was the idea that someone else’s blood was flowing through my body. I was no longer just me. I have a friend who has cadaver bones welded into his spine. I find that even creepier. Yet it helps him.

The play is really about family dynamics, not organ donation — the characters even tell us that in the beginning. The kidney is a MacGuffin that drives the plot, but it is the relationships between the characters that carry the play.

The staging is minimal, yet we always know where we are, which is mostly a hospital room in Philadelphia. Lou, in bed in a hospital gown for most of the play, reminds us of how vulnerable and invisible one can feel when subjected to our health care system. Actors Gatling and Eisen-Martin play multiple parts, although some felt a bit stereotypical. The play has been through a lengthy process of coping with cast changes, but the current actors form a cohesive whole.

Hollinger challenged himself by undertaking to write a comedy about organ donation, but instead of dealing with the real issues around decisions of life and death, which could still be comedic, he turns it into a more typical story of family dysfunction with a few twists and turns along the way. Hard choices are given easy solutions, and the scars, while visible, seem to stay on the surface. Nevertheless, this play can be the catalyst for some important discussions as medical breakthroughs challenge us all to make hard decisions.

 

For an interview with director Terrence Nolen about the backstage drama involved in mounting this production, click here.

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