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Skinless

“You can’t kill mom. We need the money!”

Thirty-five years ago, Johnna Adams’ intellectual-horror drama would have had the same fate in academia as the works of Zinnia Wells do in her play Skinless. Not ready for scholarly seriousness.

Zinnia wrote “speculative fiction” for pulp magazines: about a woman’s body parts growing into the rooms of a house (since that’s all she meant to her husband); about self-mutilation; and women’s “interrupted” lives. This was way back in the 1950s, when such subjects were as taboo as Communism.

They still are, says Sylvia Diaz, a Woman’s Studies prof. She was a front-line feminist in the early years of the movement and insists that the cause cannot permit contradictions - like women harming each other - today. That’s why she won’t let grad. student Emmi Falco write a doctoral dissertation on Zinnia, especially her Southern Gothic novel about a tribe of “skinless” people, living in dugouts in a Georgia forest, and why Zinnia longed to join them.

Emmi shares that urge: to strip away her external identity, and all the labels it attracts, and become skinless, simply “form and function,” and “life exposed.”

The idea freaks Sylvia out. She’s so old school, she accuses today’s young women of being “self-suppressors” with “nothing under the skin.”

At Moxie Theatre, these academic scenes take place stage right. From center to left, the Wells sisters live in real time. As Zinnia reads from her novel, the sisters enact a tale as doomed as a Greek tragedy. They’re cursed. The reason they can’t break it: “we need the money!”

The Moxie production, ably directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, gets the horror – and, in the end, really pulls it off.

Jo Anne Glover makes Zinnia stark, committed, and fearless, an artist who must create, even if only for herself. Erin Peterson’s attentive Bluebell’s an ideal audience for Zinnia’s narrations. Amanda Morrow does a fine, nearly mute job as mystical young Chryssie, keeper of evil secrets. And Lisel Gorrel-Getz is funny and moving as Marigold, the traditionalist who, were she to marry, might grow into a house.

Jerry M. Sonnenberg has managed to fit the Wells’ front porch, and much of their house, on the small Moxie stage, and Professor Diaz’s office – and the thick trunks of two trees. The details are as admirable, especially the dusty old walls and their cracked and peeling paint.

I’m not a fan of accompanying music in live theater. Let the acting create emotional responses. In movies it tells audience what’s coming and how to react when it gets there. But Matt Lescault-Wood’s background score’s an exception. It’s got a Hitchcockian feel that deftly enhances scenes.

The playwright divides the stage between theory and practice. The four sisters, all named for flowers, are center- and stage left. The “theory” is Professor Diaz’s office, stage right.

The office scenes begin effectively as Emmi gropes for a thesis topic (a nicely equivocating Anna Rebek) but grow tedious as Prof. Diaz (a one-note, far-too-preachy Rhona Gold) becomes almost as villainous as Zinnia’s mother. The debate – an important one about different generations of feminists – do go on. Combine that with Zinnia reading from her novel (which Glover does engagingly) and the piece has many static sections.

But when Zinnia wants to join the “skinless” denizens of the forest, and when Chryssie – the un-blithe spirit – decides to reveal the secret, and when the girls decide to face their curse, spines will tingle and quake.

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