LENOX — Jess was a kindergarten teacher when she chose to go back to Afghanistan for a third tour in the army. She lived in southern Florida, near the space shuttle launch site at Cape Canaveral.
Now she has come home with third degree burns to a town that has lost its center.
She is a tough, blunt, humorous woman who can't move without searing pain, and she is confronting a new form of virtual reality therapy — and her sister, her ex-boyfriend and the reality she lives with — in Lindsey Ferrentino's "Ugly Lies the Bone" at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, where it is scheduled to run in rotating repertory through Aug. 28. Press opening is 7:30 tonight.
"She's splendidly strong," said Christianna Nelson, who plays Jess, during an interview at the Bernstein theater, where she was joined by Ferrentino and director Daniela Varon.
"She's fighting for healing. She's fighting to find her place in this town that used to be her home and has changed."
Ferrentino grew up in this part of Florida and has seen this change in real time. She grew up in a house that would shake when the shuttles launched. It was a visceral memory, she said in an interview — everything stopped. People came to stand outside or sat on their rooftops, looking at the sky. And then the government closed down the space shuttle program. More than 14,000 people lost their jobs at NASA.
While Jess was overseas, her home became a ghost town, filled with the shells of closed malls and shopping centers.
"It's a community culture built on going somewhere else and doing something big," Ferrentino said, "and the scale of her life expands beyond this town. Even having seen snow when her sister never has. What she's seen is so different from her life at home. She comes back to a place where the mundane is enough."
It may be enough for Jess' ex-boyfriend, who fought her decision to go overseas again.
"He's moved on in external and superficial ways but not in his heart," Nelson said. "In the past he was a big part of who she was. They made it through two tours and she's trying so hard to find something familiar. She's looking for a connection to who she was before all this."
When she left for her tour, her mother was falling ill, and her sister stayed behind to look after her while Jess earned a military bonus to help with the expense.
"She's smart, strong and serious about her job," Nelson said. "The army needs good women soldiers, and she knew she could help."
Women were not yet allowed in combat then, said director Daniela Varon, but they went on missions with the Rangers, hiking all night with 50-pound packs.
The army began to recruit women as a Cultural Support Team, Nelson added, to search women's quarters, to gather information and try to keep women and children safe.
Ferrentino has talked with a close friend who has become a psychologist at Veteran Affairs in her hometown and with veterans coming home. They have told her how it felt to live surrounded by men, with heavy gear and boots and hair in a tight bun under a military helmet: how it felt to be a woman and a soldier.
"You're not masculine — you're the strongest version of yourself," she said.
One veteran told her that when she first got back, she would turn the radio onto loud white noise to fall asleep.
"She had lived on another frequency and speed," Ferrentino said, "and she had to be anxious, to sleep."
Jess is visibly and invisibly scarred and in constant pain, and her comic timing is sharp.
"She uses humor to deflect the crazy reactions people have," Nelson said. "Everyone sees what happened to her."
"She owns it," Ferrentino agreed. "You don't have to tiptoe around it. Veterans don't tiptoe — there's no time for that. They're some of the most direct people you will meet in your life."
She has seen a media focus on veteran suicide, she said, but those she knows have a fierce will to live.
"The suicide narrative doesn't place faith in people coming back with these injuries," she said.
As Jess struggles to move on, she reaches out to a new therapy based on a real virtual reality treatment developed for veterans.
"Virtual reality is a positive development," Ferrentino said. "It's helping people to get off painkillers. It's used in cancer treatment and giving birth. As it becomes less expensive, more people have more access to it. It's simple, and it works."
For chronic pain, though, it has limits. It works only while someone is playing.
Virtual reality can give a feeling of control, Varon said. It can become an addiction. It can also help the body to heal.
"When you're in it, you can move in ways you can't otherwise," she said.
It distracts the mind from pain and from the fear of pain, she said. Burn patients have to have their skin debrided, to remove dead or contaminated tissue, and it speeds the healing, but it is one of the most painful processes possible.
They talked in rehearsal, Varon said, about how to show that tension in Jess', in the way she stands and moves and slowly puts on a shirt.
"Can we be present with someone who is living with all this pain?" Varon asked.
What: "Ugly Lies the Bone" by Lindsey Ferrentino. Directed by Daniela Varon
Who: Shakespeare & Company
When: Tonight (press opening) through Aug. 28. In rotating repertory — selected evenings at 7:30 (through June 29) and 8:30 (beginning July 2); selected afternoons at 3
Where: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
How: (413) 637-3353; shakespeare.org; at Shakespeare & Company box office — 70 Kemble St.