Review: Under The Skin (Unit 102 Actors Company)

Secrets are revealed when a little girl goes missing in Under the Skin playing at Toronto’s Unit 102

As I was picking up my tickets at Unit 102 on opening night of Under The Skin, the front of house manager’s words echoed in the space: “The show is an hour and forty-five minutes, no intermission.” In my recent theatre-going experience, nothing fills me with dread more than such an utterance. I subscribe to the ‘cap-it-at-eighty-minutes-and-call-it-a-day’ philosophy of one-act plays. However, even the wisest among us are wrong at times, and I am happy to report that I enjoyed every one of the performance’s one hundred and five minutes.

Under The Skin begins immediately after a twelve-year-old girl goes missing. It explores how her disappearance affects her mother, Maggie, and her married neighbours, John and Renee. The play follows these three people from the beginning of spring until Halloween night, and it delves into the multidimensional relationships they have with each other. Renee is caught in an abusive relationship with John and can’t find her way out. She is at odds with her feelings about Maggie, torn between love and jealousy and constantly feeling the need to impress. John resents Renee for not disclosing that she had two children before he asked her to marry him. Maggie agonizes over her missing daughter and vacillates between being a good friend to Renee and not overstepping her boundaries.

The audience knows the score after the first scene but the story’s unravelling is so compelling that it’s hard not to be enthralled. The chilling climax still haunts me days after I attended the performance.

Under The Skin has a fantastic ensemble cast. Luis Fernandes is sadistic, pathological and frightening as the abusive John Gifford. Sam Coyle’s Renee Gifford is painfully self-conscious and insecure and is the embodiment of a woman who tries too hard and can’t win. Krista Morin plays a dishevelled Maggie Benton, who is in shock, slightly manic and prone to both chain smoking and bouts of inappropriate laughter.

The most remarkable aspect of the two women’s performances is watching their exchange of emotional states. Coyle’s Renee is the more put-together and orderly character in the beginning while Morin’s character struggles to maintain her sanity. Just before the climax, the transition is complete. Maggie is riding to the top of the so-called wheel of fortune while Renee fights being crushed under its turn.

The transitions between scenes are effortless. The show runs at a good pace and every moment counts. All aspects of the violence are believable and the devil is in the detail; an emphatic past tense, a kiss that lingers too long, a child’s scream and tape on a pair of glasses are a few examples. The set evokes a busy family kitchen in which the owner takes pride and the countertop appliances, photos and fridge art suggest activity. In stark contrast is John’s workroom which is dark, stagnant and ominous.

As a person who’s done extensive research on missing women, I’d be remiss not to mention the numerous trigger warnings for violence against women there are throughout the play. Betty Lambert wrote Under The Skin in 1983 and, unfortunately, the play continues to tell a story as relevant as it is ubiquitous. It is full of the complexities of marriage, friendship, parenthood and the struggle between hanging on and letting go.


Photo of Luis Fernandes, Sam Coyle and Krista Morin by Michael Osuszek