‘Polaroid Stories’ over staged with a touch of humanity

Here’s an image: a teenage boy and girl crouching by a manhole in a graffiti-scarred inner city dead end, ripping into a bag of fast food and devouring its contents as if they haven’t eaten in ages. He has shaggy blond hair, her hair is short platinum blond with a swath of purple; there’s a tattoo of a snake emblazoned across her collarbone and she wears a backpack of pink, Muppet-like fur. “I love you,” he says, and she says it back with a giddy smile as though it’s the first time she’s ever said it, as though she’s been waiting to say it for a long time.

The scene, played out Feb. 10 at the UAA Mainstage Theater by actors Ruby Kennell and Danny Jones, is touching, human and very brief, because for the most part, “Polaroid Stories” deals more with inhumanity than humanity. The play unfolds in a series of often brutal vignettes about the lives of 10 homeless adolescents who are rapidly turning their environment into a miniature hell on earth. The fight scenes are brutal, the language spare and harsh, and the portrayal of kids driving themselves out of their minds with drugs and booze is often gut-wrenchingly sad. But the play wouldn’t work without tender moments like the one between Kennell and Jones, moments, which, like nascent Polaroid images, give us a hint of what might have been.

Playwright Naomi Izuka’s script is laden with overt references to Greek myth, often with wonderful effect such as when Persephone (played by Lindley Ross) kneels down before a trickling stream of gutter water and recalls the story of her unwanted pregnancy, wondering what became of the son she gave up for adoption. She seems to be mourning the loss of her child and the death of the mother she could have been and, when in desperation she plunges her hands into the dark waters, it is as though she is trying to plunge herself into the River Styx which encircled the mythical kingdom of death.

But you don’t have to memorize Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” to appreciate “Polaroid Stories.” The drama springs mainly from the situation, from the tensions inherent in living in an environment where nothing is forbidden because no one cares for your safety, where sexual passion competes and loses against addiction to narcotics, where friendship is impossible because no one can be trusted.

The pitfall with a play like “Polaroid Stories” is that it relies so heavily on monologues delivered directly to the audience. Sometimes these moments seem a little too staged; the actors suddenly become a shade too concerned with getting the performance right. This is understandable; the stories are all worth telling. But at times the characters seem too exhausted to care. Tim Ingalls’ Skinheadboy lets the words drop emotionless from his mouth; Mariko Sarafin’s Neon Girl gets lost in her memories and cosmic fantasies; Aron Johnson’s drug lord Dionysus gets staggering drunk on his own power.

In these moments when the actors seem to lose control, the characters crystallize into sudden focus. We get a sense of hearing stories told by lost souls, by people who’ve come to rest at a dead end. We get a sense that these are stories by people who’ve sacrificed some of their humanity, and most disturbingly, that these stories are very true.

“Polaroid Stories” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. in the Mainstage Theater in the UAA Fine Arts Building through Feb. 27. For ticket information, call 786-4849.