Don’t let the cover of the program fool you. The Moxie Theatre’s San Diego premiere of Skinless is not a scary play with images that will disturb the squeamish. Instead, the show combines psychological thrills with mystery to tell a story that takes places in the 1950s and the present.
Skinless focuses on Zinnia Wells (Jo Anne Glover), a fictional 20th century science fiction and horror writer who lives with her ill mother and three sisters; the unofficial leader, Marigold (Lisel Gorell-Getz), warm and supporting Bluebell (Erin Peterson) and the very odd Chryssie (Amanda Morrow). Zinnia believes that there are skinless forest dwellers who live in the woods. She is so convinced of this, that she is inspired to write a novel about them.
In the 21st century, graduate student, Emmi Falco (Anna Rebek), is obsessed with Zinnia. She wants to write her dissertation about the author. For many different reasons, her pugnacious feminist adviser, Sylvia Diaz (Rhona Gold), thinks it is a terrible idea and wants the thesis to be about someone else. Emmi then tries, with all her might, to prove why Zinnia is an important female wordsmith.
Upon entering the Moxie, Jerry M. Sonnenberg’s scenery immediately makes a lasting impression. The Wells’ home is eerie and not in the best of shape. Sherrice Kelly’s lighting design gives it an intentionally cold vibe. This is an interesting contrast to Diaz’s rather ordinary office, which is on the left side of the small but seemingly expansive stage.
Founding Artistic Director, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, puts a lot of effort in creating the two worlds that are featured throughout Skinless. This tactic is most effective when situations are happening in both decades simultaneously.
Johnna Adams’s dialogue can be snappy, especially when Zinnia’s sisters give her feedback on her written adventures. The contrasting views of the critical Marigold and the more encouraging Bluebell, provide for some thoughtful laughs.
The biggest risk Adams takes is to have Zinnia and Emmi read big chunks of text from the former’s prose. This admittedly is more effective with Zinnia, because it feels more natural.
This brings up the biggest issue with Skinless. While Zinnia’s experiences are always compelling, Emmi’s meetings with Sylvia are not quite as well developed.
Anna and Rhona are fun to watch in these initially captivating roles, but their encounters are repetitive and even somewhat unrealistic. Playwright, Adams, brings up points regarding competition, self-abuse and what it means to be a woman, but all this information fails to mask the fact that there is not a lot of growth between these two ladies. Sylvia especially gets the short end of the stick, because she does not play a clear character from beginning to end.
Another problem that keeps Skinless from being a must-see is a decision that Emmi makes in the climax. Her careless actions in finding out more information about Zinnia, results in the suspense being temporarily removed from the drama.
What makes the experience still worth it are watching are the many scenes with Zinnia and her family. The tension builds as questions arise about the skinless and the Wells’ sisters feelings about their mysterious mother. The resolution of these points is similar to something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film or an Edgar Allen Poe work.
Despite the flaws, Skinless provides the goods for lovers of spooky yarns. Be forewarned: viewers might not want to become horror writers any time soon after taking this frightening trip to El Cajon Boulevard.