LENOX — The first time we see Jess, the central character in Lindsey Ferrentino's "Ugly Lies the Bone" — which is being given a less-than-fully formed, curiously disconnected production at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre — she is wearing virtual reality goggles. The song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is playing at full volume. As Jess rips off her glasses and protests the song, a voice — clinical, distant, dispassionate — assures Jess that loud music is designed to overwhelm her senses; distract the brain with an overabundance of stimuli.
Jess (played by Christianna Nelson) is a war veteran back in her hometown in Florida after her third tour in Afghanistan. She has third degree burns over the right side her face and head. She has a badly fractured right leg and arm — the effects of an IED (improvised explosive device). The pain is unendurable. This Virtual Reality Therapy, sessions of which are strung through the play, is designed for pain management, physical therapy and psychological therapy. Her treatments are key element, in Jess' adjustment to the real world; to her determined effort to regain her sense of self-worth as he returns to the family home she shares with her older sister, Kacie (played by Rory Hammond with assurance, understanding and patience that frequently is pushed to a limit) and Kacie's older, seemingly shiftless live-in boyfriend, Kelvin (Dylan Chalfy), who is gaming the Social Security disability system and whom Jess suspects is scheming to con her sister out of her savings.
Jess is mistrustful, suspicious, resentful, hypersensitive to her surroundings. Wit, sarcasm, sharp humor are the strongest defense weapons in her arsenal. She grudgingly finds relief in her virtual reality sessions — especially when she is encouraged to create her own virtual paradise which she does with the aid of a dream board made by Kacie and the music of Paul Simon.
"We cannot undo what is done," Jess' unseen therapist (voiced by Ariel Bock) says, "but how do we move on from here?"
The question goes to the heart of Ferrentino's play. While it's a partly rhetorical question thrown at Jess, the question also frames the central issue facing the people in Jess' hometown, Titusville, "the heart of Florida's space coast," Ferrentino says in her script.
NASA is shutting down its space shuttle program after 30 years and Titusville is feeling the effect. NASA employees have been and are being laid off. Businesses, small and large, are folding. The actual launch of the last shuttle flight, in fact, is the occasion for one of the play's key scenes between Jess and her former boyfriend, a gas station/convenience store clerk named Stevie (played by Hamish Allan-Headley with a discomforting goofiness that belies the dynamics at play within him), a low-level office clerk who was let go in the first round of NASA layoffs.
As Jess and Stevie sit on the roof of her house watching the space shuttle's final red glare, it is clear that there is a good deal of unfinished business between them, even as the embers of their relationship show signs of being rekindled. It's a scene rife with opportunity for two actors — opportunity that is missed here, due in no small measure to a Stevie that hardly seems worth Jess' attention.
Nelson is a tremendously resourceful actress — as she demonstrated so impressively last season at Shakespeare & Company in "Red Velvet" — but she keeps Jess at something of an arm's length, as if she hasn't caught up with all the moving parts.
Nelson is on firmest ground in her scenes with Hammond, who strikes responsive chords in her portrayal of a responsible older sibling who is trying to build a life of her own even as she makes a place for Jess; a safe home.
The missing chemistry between Nelson's Jess and Allan-Headley's Stevie is emblematic of a production that goes too far — to the point of virtual disengagement — in its attempt to avoid the melodramatic and keep things within bounds and real.
What: "Ugly Lies the Bone" by Lindsey Ferrentino. Directed by Daniela Varon
With: Christianna Nelson, Rory Hammond, Hamish Allan-Headley, Dylan Chalfy, Ariel Bock
Designers: John McDermott, set; Govane Lohbauer, costume; James W. Bilnoski, lighting; Amy Altadonna, sound; Scott Jones, makeup and wig
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Through Aug. 28. In rotating repertory — selected evenings at 8:30 and afternoons at 3
Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes (no intermission)
How: (413) 637-3353; shakespeare.org; at Shakespeare & Company box office — on campus at 70 Kemble St.