'Under the Skin' at Everyman Theatre toys with sympathy

Raina clearly deserves our sympathy. The main character in Michael Hollinger's "Under the Skin," she is a single mom with a mediocre job in Perrysburg, Ohio. She recently lost her own mother to a bitter battle with cancer, and now the father that she's been estranged from for years is knocking on her door, asking her to donate a kidney to save his life.

But Raina doesn't make it easy for us to give her our compassion. She's indecisive, resentful, whiny, and self-centered. She admits as much. "My yoga teacher says I'm a young soul," she tells one suitor. "That means I'm immature."

Megan Anderson, who plays Raina in the current production at the Everyman Theatre, does an astonishing job of toying with our sympathies. A thin rail of a woman in a pink shirt and faded jeans with her dank hair tucked behind her ears, Anderson's Raina pulls us in with her intense love for her 4-year-old daughter and then pushes us away with her obsessive notebook list of her father's faults. She pulls us in with her open-eyed hunger for love and pushes us away with her angry grudge against anyone who won't supply it.

This character and this performance are the main reasons to see "Under the Skin," which tries to break free of the conventions of "disease dramas" and only partially succeeds. There are some genuinely funny lines and a heart-stopping death scene, but there are also plenty of platitudes and convenient coincidences. The result is a rewarding evening but less than a must-see event.

Lou, Raina's dad, also pulls us in and pushes us away. An absentee father, a philandering husband, a workaholic contractor, a hard drinker, and a chain smoker, he often grates on the audience nearly as much as he does his daughter. But even in a hospital gown in a mechanical bed, he's a wisecracking, flirtatious charmer who's difficult to resist. His contradictions explain Raina's ambivalence: She feels she should help out her father, but, god, he's such a jerk sometimes.

As played by Mitchell Hebert with a bald head and a salt-and-pepper goatee, Lou stands in the foyer of Raina's Ohio house and cheerfully banters with her as if it had been days rather than years since he's seen her. He's trying to be anything but desperate and remorseful, though Hebert skillfully suggests those emotions lurking beneath the surface. Raina throws him out of the house.

A few days later, though, she shows up at his Philadelphia hospital, still unsure about donating a kidney but willing to at least talk about it. In the hospital coffee shop, she meets Jarrell, a recent college graduate who is cheerfully giving his kidney to a beloved uncle, and Dr. Badu, a Ugandan immigrant whose father issues make Raina's seem trivial.

The script moves fluidly from short scenes in the hospital and the homes of Raina and Jarrell to flashbacks and direct addresses to the audience. Director Vincent Lancisi makes this easy to follow inside the V-shaped walls of translucent glass, framing the hospital bed, which doubles as the bed where Raina and Jarrell (played by Keith Royal Smith, who also plays Lou's nurse Hector) consummate their fling. Lighting designer Jay Herzog (whose own liver transplant a year ago helped inspire this production) uses spots to point our attention in the right directions.

To explain much more of the plot would spoil some entertaining surprises. As Raina and Lou tussle over whether he's "kidney-worthy," as she puts it, the show ambles along amiably with some very witty gallows humor. It suddenly sobers up in a second-act confrontation between Raina and Jarrell's mom Marlene (Alice Gatling, who also plays Dr. Badu). Angry and unreasonable, Raina describes her mother's horrible death as if the story were a club she could use to attack Jarrell's mom.

After this powerful moment, the play's ending is a letdown. A hurried, Agatha Christie-like reveal of the kidney's fate is followed by a "Kumbaya" moment of unconvincing banalities. Despite this disappointing finish, "Under the Skin" offers enough funny lines and enough dramatic encounters to justify an evening.

Best of all, it offers two characters who are difficult to embrace and impossible to ignore.

"Under the Skin" runs through Feb. 21 at Everyman Theatre. For more information, visit everymantheatre.org.

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