SALT LAKE CITY — Pygmalion Theater Company has the honor of being the only local theater company dedicated to producing plays for and about women. Their latest offering, Cheat, written by local playwright Julie Jensen, offers an intriguing feminist perspective on the massive social changes that accompanied the end of World War II.
Set in an airplane manufacturing facility at Utah’s own Hill Air Force Base, Cheat follows the story of Roxy (Cassandra Stokes-Wylie), a female mechanic who finds unexpected satisfaction in her unconventional occupation. The war-time deficit of men means that nearly the whole factory is crewed by women, among them Roxy’s childhood friend Edie (Madeline Weinberger), and Reva (Tracie Merrill), the mother of her ex-boyfriend, Sunny. An unexplained indiscretion on Roxy’s part drove Sunny to enlist in the army, and Reva now holds her responsible for placing her son in danger. The strain between the two women dominates Roxy’s thoughts, and serves only to worsen a loveless marriage with hapless gas station attendant, D-Dubb (Lane Richins). Twists and turns occur as it soon becomes clear that the ties that bind these four people are more complex than what immediately meets the eye.
Director Fran Pruyn creates an intimate and believable world. The set (designed by John Wayne Cook) consists of three locations, each well laid out and filled with detailed, period appropriate props that made them like real lived in spaces. A poster of Rosie the Riveter stands over the entire stage, providing a constant reminder of the historic setting of the play . Soundscape design by Mikal Klee added a nice texture to many scenes, and transition music and wartime ads helped to smooth rather long, awkward transitions. Jesse Portillo‘s lights are warm and inviting, and the beautiful costumes by Michael Nielsen easily drew the audience into the time period
These precise design elements support a talented cast. Merrill makes an immediate impression as Reva, endowing her character with a gritty exterior and rough physicality that she uses to try and mask the anguish she feels from being separated from her son. She portrays a strong woman, although I would have liked to see her eventually drop that shell and become fully vulnerable. A tragedy happens to Reva that would merit breaking down the walls further than Merrill chose for her character, and fully committing to that heartbreak would have rounded out an otherwise solid performance. Stokes-Wylie started the show a bit unfocused, but gradually warmed into the character to deliver a solid and nuanced turn as Roxy. Her character was appropriately cautious yet warm towards Reva, and while I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, managed to play the early scenes in a manner that hinted at the coming action without fully giving it away.
Stokes-Wylie was particularly convincing when interacting with her husband, D-Dubb, and their domestic scenes were among the best of the evening. Richin’s D-Dubb is masterfully crafted, as he manages to be both gratingly irritating and likeable at the same time. Their scenes are agonizing to watch: she sits and does laundry while he paces around the room, trying desperately to lift the mood with jokes, with gifts, with anything he can think of. His efforts are more than futile—not only does Roxy not love him, she can’t stand him, and this grim portrait of an ill-timed marriage should be familiar to any that have witnessed a dysfunctional relationship.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Weinberger’s Edie, whose sharp humor and bright energy brought a needed breath of fresh air to an otherwise heavy drama. She roars onto the stage 20 minutes in, drilling Roxy to explain precisely why she made such an idiotic choice in whom she married, and then appears once more at the end of the play to announce that she has resigned her position and is off to see her husband. She is the voice of many women of the time, for whom the end of the war signaled a return to normalcy and a chance to retreat to the comfort of domestic life. Roxy has grown to love the industrial job that Edie abhors, and their final encounter is fraught with strain as they cannot agree on what the place of women should be in the post-war society. Weinberger’s scenes were the best of the night, and I only wished I could have seen more of her.
On the whole, Cheat was a well-orchestrated and professional production. It’s consistently serious tone may make it less appealing for some audience members, but if you are interested in experiencing new local work presented at high caliber of professionalism, then it might be just the show for you.