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InterAct Theatre Company intended to present Thomas Gibbons’s Steal Her Bones on its Center City stage, as it has nine previous works by its longtime playwright-in-residence. Instead, a belated premiere comes to our computer screens, another skillfully executed example of adapting to digital theater in the Covid age.
The 90-minute drama bears the hallmarks I’ve come to expect of a Gibbons play, with scintillating drama on the surface giving way to a more nuanced exploration of human connection and relationships. The broad subject here is the chasm between atheism and religion, a topic that certainly lays the path for theatrical fireworks. But the primary question the playwright asks is how much we can truly know about another person, even those we consider closest to us in the world.
A momentous secret?
Gibbons doesn’t set out to convert anyone to either side of the debate, and truthfully, the arguments here on both sides of the divide are somewhat rudimentary. (Perhaps intentionally so.) A hot-button issue can serve well as a way into more personal revelations, though. Here, we meet Diana Goodwin (Kaci M. Fannin), an evolutionary biologist who takes glee in creaming flat-earthers in the public square. Her outspoken beliefs, as well as her gender, make her a target of extremism, much to the concern of her artist wife, Ellen Travis (Holly Cate).
After Diana dies of cancer, Martin Banks (Tim Dugan), a theologian who embraces rationalism, claims to have met Diana in the final weeks of her life. Ellen receives Martin’s claim that Diana expressed a burgeoning belief with incredulity. The play’s title comes from a prophetic prediction Diana offered her spouse shortly after her diagnosis: “Once I’m gone, the vultures will try to steal my bones. They’ll declare I was never really an atheist—in my heart of hearts, I always believed. Or with my last mortal breath, I opened my eyes to the light of salvation.”
Much of the play’s tension comes from Ellen’s attempts to determine whether Martin is indeed one of those vultures. Gibbons provides evidence to support and refute the claims—he bonds with Ellen over their shared widowhood, but he also seems comfortable fudging some details of his meeting with Diana to better buffet his conclusion. Dugan’s performance allows for a certain slipperiness that leaves Martin’s motivations open to interpretation.
At the same time, the writing suggests a secretive side of Diana’s nature, which sows just enough doubt in Ellen’s mind. If she forcefully rebukes Martin, is she doing so in order to engender a sense of certainly that doesn’t actually exist? What would it mean for their lives together if Diana held onto something so momentous right up to her final breath?
Identities at stake
Seth Rozin’s direction builds tension effectively, and Fannin and Cate credibly portray a couple whose genuine love and mutual respect cannot erase all traces of doubt. Fannin particularly shows us, through Diana’s initial reticence to reveal her diagnosis to Ellen, the complicated nature of her personality. Diana avoids the appearance of weakness at all costs. Wouldn’t the confirmation of a deathbed conversion be the ultimate expression of it?
Ellen is not as fleshed out as the other two characters—she largely serves as a foil for Diana or Martin—yet Cate shades her performance with convincing flashes of sympathy, anger, regret, and hesitation. She shows that Ellen’s identity, as much as Diana’s, is at stake if Martin’s claims prove true.
A case for digital productions
As with several recent streaming productions from local companies, Steal Her Bones was produced remotely, in compliance with social distancing guidelines. Video designer and editor Christopher Colucci does a solid job of making the performers seem like they’re occupying the same space, and the establishing shot of Ellen’s bucolic garden (set design by Colin McIlvaine) grounds the production in a sense of place. Ariel Liudi Wong’s costumes nicely delineate character; Diana’s slightly loosened collar in an early scene suggests the looming descent of illness. Interstitial music (also by Colucci) is deployed effectively, perhaps because its use is sparing.
Throughout the play, Diana repeats a mantra to Bible thumpers, inquisitive students, and Ellen alike: “Persuade me.” Steal Her Bones makes a persuasive case that digital theater can be just as engrossing as the traditional stage.
Image description: A logo for InterAct’s production of Steal Her Bones. On the top half of the image is an urn made of maroon marble standing on grass, with green trees in the background. The bottom half of the image is the dirt under the grass, with white fossilized ancient animals and the shadow of an upside-down cross in the dirt. “Steal Her Bones” is written against the dirt in white text.
What, When, Where
Steal Her Bones. By Thomas Gibbons. Directed by Seth Rozin. InterAct Theatre Company. Streaming through March 7, 2021. Free to view, with registration at interacttheatre.org/steal-her-bones.
Steal Her Bones is closed-captioned.
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