SALT LAKE CITY — In the not too distant future, in a world where technology painfully more ubiquitous, and true human connection is rare, what if there was a chance to start over?
Playwright Jeff Talbott‘s world premier of /i/ at Pioneer Theatre Company attempts to answer this question with the story of Sarah. Sarah has recently moved. She’s met a nice guy named Jake. She’s starting to maybe feel better about where life is going. But where was she before? Is Jake actually nice? What does she need to move forward from? The answers only come as her story unfolds. Talbott’s script leaves all the clues audiences need to be truly invested in the final scene. Information circles back in a way that only after the entire piece do the choices make sense—like a good movie with a surprising ending. Sarah is the audience avatar, and the rules of the story unfold as she navigates the world. /i/ is tentatively labeled as a love story, and it is . . . sort of. It is refreshing in that there is no shying away from the ugly parts of modern romance. Sure, the “romance” starts with meet-cute , but it is unconventional enough not to be cloying. Sarah and Jake are interesting and complicated people just out to make a connection. Connect they do, but then the complicated gets . . . complicated.
This is as far as I can go about the story. To reveal anything else would mean a lot of spoilers. Talbot’s script defies genre labeling and yet feels familiar. It is engaging and thought-provoking, Karen Azenberg‘s directing keeps it grounded in Sarah’s reality, which is crucial to the success of the structure of the story. Kathleen McElfresh as Sarah is at turns winsome and determined. She manages to keep Sarah sincere and open to new experiences, but she never loses the circumspect nature of someone who has seen some of the dark parts of life. These layers are especially evident when Sarah speaks with her mother over the phone. Colleen Baum as Virginia is the best kind of worried and protective (yet wise) mother. Virginia could easily become a stock character, but Baum makes her endearing and funny. Virginia just wants what is best for Sarah, and that is made difficult to adequately communicate by the distance between them. Nafeesa Monroe populates Sarah’s world with at least 6 distinct characters. I can’t tell you more, but Monroe is a lovely performer with a tough job. Lastly, it is Todd Gearhart as Jake who is the heart of this piece. Sarah is the protagonist and McElfresh drives the action, but it is Jake who provides almost all the incitement for that action. Gearhart gives hands down the most moving, accurate, and impassioned portrayal of absolute heartache I think I have ever seen on a Utah stage. Again, I can’t get into why, but Gearhart provided many a teary-eyed audience member accurate and cathartic representation for one of life’s hardest processes.
The design of the piece is moody and slightly bleak in contrast to the very organic story line. Paul Tate Depoo III created a minimal and modular structural wall that opens to reveal different alcoves of an almost colorless world while keeping the action firmly downstage. This monolithic set towers over the action and contributes to the isolation of the slightly futuristic concrete world. Costumes by Gregory Gale and hair and make-up by Amanda French solidify the ever-so-slightly not now feel. This is most effective with the many parts played by Monroe. Lighting design by Jax Messenger and sound design by Kate Wrecker contribute a slightly menacing and dark underscore to the love story.
Azenberg and PTC should be commended for their support and production of new plays. The production value and quality of /i/ is impressive for any play, but especially a small and intimate piece. However, some of the storyline relies heavily on communication through cellphones- specifically video calling. Azenberg staged the conversations in a very theatrical way, but much of the acting relied on eye contact with little screens. I was fairly close to the stage and felt cut off from the action during these exchanges, I can’t imagine it was much better from the balcony. There were other moments when the space felt too large for the story, but the phone calls were the only instances I was taken out of the moment.
It isn’t every day a new play is produced. And it isn’t everyday that a new play makes you really consider some heavy and heady questions. It is rarer when questions are posed without an agenda. /i/ asks a lot, but it never tells you what you should think or how you should feel. For us, and for Sarah, those answers are entirely up for grabs.
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