By Lynn Venhaus

Funny, sad, poignant and personal, “Gruesome Playground Injuries” is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ impressive return to the Steve Woolf Studio series, renowned for its adventurous programming for years.

It’s an accomplished production of Rajiv Joseph’s 2009 two-character drama featuring raw and affecting performances from Brian Slaten and Jessika D. Williams, who will break your heart as damaged souls Doug and Kayleen.

The year is 1983 and they meet as eight-year-olds in their parochial school infirmary. He’s a daredevil prone to accidents that get more series as time goes by and she’s waylaid by a sensitive stomach – her mother blames it on “bad thoughts” – and her internal wounds progress to self-harm and substance abuse.

Both outsiders, their lives intersect for the next 30 years, while they wrestle with their feelings.

With his keen wit and sharp emotional insight into the human condition, Joseph brings the friends back together – even with long stretches apart. It’s complicated – and compelling. They may be a lifeline, but they exasperate each other, push people away in a cruel world, and from their perspective, connecting isn’t so easy.

Adulting is hard, we know. Life happens. Friends move, get different jobs, start and end other relationships, raise families. But the ones we maintain ties with become a special part of the fabric of our lives. And the ones we reconnect with, after drifting part, that opportunity is a great tonic – and we know that feeling. It’s universal.

“Gruesome Playground Injuries” evokes those friendship memories. It’s obviously more complex with Doug and Kayleen, who learn they can’t heal each other, but they can provide sustenance.

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his outstanding 2009 play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” Joseph crafts fully dimensional characters, flaws and all.

Jessika D Williams, Brian Slaten Photo by Philip Hamer

In this nonlinear narrative, the pals’ encounters are rather unusual, through early teens, 20s and 30s, with the actors revealing more emotional depth each time. Every rueful scene deals with pain, both physical and psychological. They ask each other: “Does it hurt?”

Slaten inhabits the hyper and impulsive Doug with an appealing goofball energy while Williams unmasks a guarded person concealing internal scars but can’t hide the darkness within.  Director Becks Redman emphasizes the characters’ vulnerability.

The pair is on stage the entire time, never out of sight, and they change clothes on opposite sides. The simple outfits selected by costume designer Carolyn Mazuca reflect the various time periods in their lives.

The production’s technical design work is also superb, with an interesting monochromatic set of multi-purpose shapes by scenic designer Diggle. The actors move pieces around to create their settings – efficient and functional spaces doubling for interiors and outside. Lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia also gives the characters a sense of place and enhances the mood.

David Gomez’ soulful instrumental composition adds a mournful tone, reflecting on missed opportunities and regrets. Sound designer Kareem Deanes’ crisp work excels in the black box space.

Post-pandemic, this play resonates even more than in the before times. We have acutely felt the isolation of social distancing and loss of human connection through time and distance. We have fought similar battles separately and together the past three years.

With mesmerizing performances and a director desiring to bring out parallel lines we can relate to, this production aims straight for the heart and achieves a bulls-eye. It makes us think and feel about how people make their marks on our lives.

Photo by Philip Hamer.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting “Gruesome Playground Injuries” in the return of Steve Woolf Studio series from April 14 through May 13 at the Strauss Black Box Theatre in the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, 210 E Monroe Ave, Kirkwood, Mo.

The show runs 80 minutes without intermission. House doors will open 30 minutes before the show starts to begin seating. Please plan to arrive accordingly as this show is general admission. Concessions will be available to purchase before the show. They are only able to accept debit/credit cards.  There is a free lot for parking directly behind the theatre on W Monroe Ave. and S Fillmore Ave. Additional free parking is available on adjacent streets.

For tickets or for more information, visit

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