Coming Clean In Broken Bone Bathtub

Siobhan O'Laughlin  in Broken Bone Bathtub
Siobhan O'Laughlin in Broken Bone Bathtub Photo by Jeromy Barber

I’m sitting at the foot end of a bathtub, in a small and muggy bathroom, talking about what it felt like as an only child to suddenly live and shower with 11 other girls at sleepaway camp. The woman sitting in the tub listening to me nods with great empathy and understanding as she gracefully skims her one non-broken arm across the top of the water, collecting bathwater bubbles to ensure that they continue to cover her naked body.

I do not know this woman, nor does she know me. Nor do we know the other 13 people crammed into the bathroom with us.

This is Broken Bone Bathtub (presented in Houston by Dinolion), Siobhan Loughlin’s intimately lovely one-woman, one hour, immersive and interactive show about defining and then positively evolving who you are.

“It’s going to be warm in there, so take off any layers”, we’re told before we enter the bathroom. To this, I’ll add, warm is an understatement. It’s hot in there, dress accordingly.

“You may be asked to touch the performer, so if you're adventurous, take a seat right up against the tub”.

Siobhan is playing herself, post her bicycle accident in 2014 that left her in a cast and feeling unable to shower without getting her arm wet. Instead, she opted to bathe. Problem was, her small apartment was tub-less, so she relied on the kindness of friends to invite her over and use theirs.

We then are her friends of sorts. Sharing tub time with her as we imagine many of those friends did. And what are friends for if not to wash your back or rinse your hair when you have a mangled hand in a cast, no partner and no family close by? Hence the touching.

But Broken Bone Bathtub is not simply an excuse to role play those moments, nor is it in any way a gawking experience (with only extremity revealing nudity and no specifically mature subject matter, this is a show accessible to a wide audience). Rather, O’Loughlin uses the accident and the tub and the close quarters space as a kind of therapy session. For her and for us.

click to enlarge The intimate space of Broken Bone Bathtub - PHOTO BY JEROMY BARBER
The intimate space of Broken Bone Bathtub
Photo by Jeromy Barber

Siobhan’s narrative as therapy (much of which is dealt with in light comic fashion) comes as she recounts her grappling with how it felt to be injured and alone. The shame of needing others, but not having a specific other to help. What it was like for someone who had dedicated her life to social justice to now just feel sorry for herself despite her relative privilege. And ultimately how to take all this knowledge and let it inform who you are, who you want to be and how to embrace it wholeheartedly.

Our therapy is a little trickier. For much of the show, Siobhan lobs questions at us like a truly good communicator would. With give and take.

She describes how she was ashamed of her broken hand and then asks us if we’ve ever felt ashamed of our bodies. She talks about crying in front of doctors and then asks us if we ever cry in public. A story about the relief of getting a one hand massage (on the good hand) and feeling touch again for the first time leads to questions about the last time we held hands with someone.

These aren’t just rhetorical questions either. They're directed at us as individuals. With only a dozen or so of us in the bathroom, there's no escaping or pretending she isn’t asking something of you directly. And it won’t just be one question either. Each answer is meticulously plowed until your whole story is revealed. Or at least a good amount of it.

If this sounds utterly horrendous both to participate in and to listen to, well miraculously it kinda isn’t. And just to qualify, I say this as someone that, without exception, leaves before any event Q and A to avoid listening to audience members drone on about things only germane or interesting to themselves.

It’s hard to feel prickly about sharing when the woman asking you is sitting nude in a tub (vulnerable) sharing with you some of her most intimate feelings (vulnerable) and the people around you seem quite willing to share their stuff as well (vulnerable).

What Siobhan does so expertly (other than don the most fabulously fierce metallic blue eyeshadow) is mine that vulnerability, make us laugh at it just a little, and let us feel like we are all in this together.

So suddenly, the man that had acne as a teen and felt so ashamed he talked to people with his hand over his chin, the woman who has been once burned  and is now afraid to trust anyone enough to share her worries, the man who hasn’t held someone’s hand since he broke up with his girlfriend over a year ago, all of us who have broken bones or had to call our parents when we screwed up, we all feel....well not quite like compadres, but at least less like strangers and more like part of the shared human condition.

Even if your heart doesn’t warm to the tales of others (and to be fair, there are times that the lobbing questions at the audience feels a bit much, distracting us from the show’s own compelling narrative), all you need to do is watch Siobhan's inquisitive prowess to be immensely impressed.

click to enlarge Audience interaction in Broken Bone Bathtub - PHOTO BY JEROMY BARBER
Audience interaction in Broken Bone Bathtub
Photo by Jeromy Barber

There are best friends, parents, journalists and even shrinks who don’t have half the power of listening, empathy, insight and follow up that Siobhan has. She doesn’t listen for the gag, for the hook or to hurry you along to make her point. Watch her and you’ll realize she’s actually listening to us. Interested by what we’re saying. Asking probing, but respectful follow up questions. It’s how she gets us to open up. We felt heard. That she seems enriched by it, is pure joy to watch.

That the conclusion of the show doesn’t quite provide the slam dunk catharsis it attempts is really of no consequence. I mean, how do you end an experience like this? Majestic personal proclamations would feel grandstanding. Petering out would feel as limp as the bathwater bubbles which get precariously un-foamy by the end of the hour.

Siobhan tells us where she’s at now. We are left to think about where we might be. We’ve all shared a serenely honest communal hour with theater as the backdrop. And we’ve done it with an actor who appears to be as genuine as she is talented.

Broken Bone Bathtub continues through July 7 at a Secret Museum District Location (provided day of show attendance). For information, visit $35.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman