SALT LAKE CITY — Kathleen Cahill has been a playwright in residence at Salt Lake Acting Company for the last two years, and from past reviews the relationship between Cahill and SLAC has produced very exciting new works. Her latest play, Course 86B in the Catalog is currently being premiered at SLAC and it carries on the tradition.
Course 86B in the Catalogue tells the story of Stevie Stuart (Colleen Baum), a paleontologist who has come to Delta Community College to take up her first teaching gig since she left her husband Bill (Daniel Beecher). She is teaching the history of life on earth in the middle of the desert and dealing with fossils and life forms, both ancient and not so ancient. One of her students, Dell Nelson (Elise Groves) and Dell’s boyfriend Sterling Jensen (Topher Rasmussen) are her only real contacts in this desolate landscape where the past is the safe reality for Stevie.
Cahill has created a unique circular universe in Course 86B where past, present, and future collide in the surreal landscape of Red Rock country. This landscape becomes a kind of limbo of eras where Stevie, in her own limbo must deal with a cheating spouse, questioning where she fits in the world and trying to make sense of her life, must move forward or become one of her beloved fossils herself. Cahill creates a world where the science/religion debate can be viewed with a wink of the eye and without really setting off one side or the other. Set design by Keven Myhre captures the openness, grandeur and desolation of this area in the small confines of the SLAC stage. It has an expansiveness in its minimalism. Director Tracy Callahan has enabled the characters to mesh in this world and kept them from becoming caricatures which they could have easily become in the hands of a less caring director.
Women really shine in this play. Colleen Baum is superb and engaging every moment she is on stage. She endows Stevie with a just the right amount of strength and self-doubt. Her cries of frustration at her state in life are made all the more intense when seen against the exquisite highs she experiences when caught in the throes of scientific discovery. The loving description of Opabinia was a pure joy to behold. Elise Groves gave Dell the wide-eyed naiveté and optimism that proved the perfect foil to Stevie’s desperation. Her declarations of belief are so matter-of-fact. At one point she says, “If you learn something that doesn’t make you feel good inside, what’s the point of learning it?” She is so charmingly sure of herself and yet so self-effacing at the same time. Topher Rasmussen gives Sterling an endearing quality while just sitting at the edge of menacing. He takes a difficult role and keeps it centered in an off-kilter way while literally chewing the scenery. Daniel Beecher as Bill is probably the most difficult character in the show. He is so smarmy at the outset and yet somehow comes to work his way under your skin, like a tick. While his evolution is a nice touch and provides the motivation for the best of Stevie’s monologues at the end of the play, it is perhaps the least satisfying. But I believe that is the intent.
This was my first experience with Salt Lake Acting Company and Kathleen Cahill. Course 86B in the Catalogue might not be “hard science,” but it is wonderfully enjoyable theater. I look forward to future productions from both SLAC and Cahill, separately and together.