Picture a human being completely devoid of skin -- a walking, breathing mass of viscera and bone, something like those anatomical figures you see in science textbooks or on the otherwise sterile walls of doctors’ offices. Skinless’ haunted heroine, Zinnia Wells, writes about these frightening creatures in her novel-in-progress – and she sees them, as alive as the moonless night, in the forest beyond her dysfunctional home.
This is half the premise of Johnna Adams’ new play, Skinless, now on stage at Moxie Theatre under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. The other, dialectical half is a philosophical contretemps between Emmi, a graduate student in women’s studies, and dissertation director Sylvia Diaz. At stake is the definition, and to their way of thinking, the future of feminism. The connective thread is Emmi’s fascination with the late, under-regarded writer Zinnia, around whose life she pines to do her academic research. No dice, says Sylvia, dismissing Zinnia Wells as a forgettable crafter of horror whose immortalizing in a university library would do nothing to further the feminist fight.
Playwright Adams is an intelligent, prodigious wordsmith, and it’s that talent that compensates for the deficiency in theatricality in Skinless, which finds Zinnia (an otherworldly Jo Anne Glover) reading aloud from her book much of the time. In addition, the office showdowns between Emmi (Anna Rebek) and Sylvia (Rhona Gold) are longer on polemics than on drama, but the questions they raise – about women, about power, about identity – are worthy ones.
The set is literally divided in two: the bookish university office of the present on the left, the front porch of the house of Zinnia, her sisters and her unseen bedridden mother on the right. Lurking in the darkness of the siblings’ collective imagination are the skinless people. There is no definitive answer as to who they are. One possibility, we learn with the revealing of a horrific family secret, is a shocking one.
Skinless should rely more on, if not shock value, than on atmosphere and timely silences, each in their way more eloquent than the pages of a novel or the platitudes of academia.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.