SALT LAKE CITY–Truth and lies, guilt and innocence, justice and mercy, and right and wrong get tangled up in the “rings” of life in this courtroom drama, based on an actual case in a small town in New Mexico. Rings is an original production by Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright Aden Ross in one of its first public staging’s as part of The Grand Theatre‘s new “Backstage Series”. The play centers around two wealthy white women; Ruby Kellpack (Deena Marie Manzanares) and Karen Glass (April Fossen) are accused of kidnapping and interrogating two Hispanic women, Vera Martinez (Iris Salazar) and Conception Florez (Yoah Guerrero), over a missing ring. Judge Madeleine Crowder (Tracie Merrill) must not only negotiate the layers of lies in the courtroom but also relive a painful tragedy from her past throughout this case. Racism, class distinction, and pressures from the community all threaten to influence Crowder, making a fair verdict blurred and potentially dangerous to her career.
The actors across the board and the direction were at a rare level of professionalism for this new work. Richard Scott, artistic director of the Grand and director of Rings, used the intimacy of the black box space with well crafted scenes, keeping the pacing at just the right level and helping the actors to create emotional depth and believability in each scene. The storytelling was clear and the use of space was effective in transitioning between the different locations and and times, as the action transitioned between the present and flashbacks of the past.
As Ruby, Manzanares created a convincing self-absorbed woman of class who believed her looks, wealth and husband’s position in the community made her above the law, and justified her actions. The scene where she reveals important details from her past was an interesting plot twist that Manzanares delivered with sincerity, showing cracks in her hardened exterior and giving dimension into this multi-faceted character. Fossen brought a level of humanity to the role of Ruby’s loyal friend, Karen, conflicted with Ruby’s actions yet willing to sacrifice her own freedom in order to protect her. Guerrero and Salazar gave strong performances as frightened and emotionally charged Hispanic women striving to see justice in an unfamiliar and white-dominated legal system.
K.C. (Tony Bird) brought humor and nuance to her role as the slightly off-kilter drama teacher and neighbor of Judge Crowder with her big personality and frequent indulgence in after-school cocktails. As Judge Crowder, Merrill showed strength and passion in each of her scenes, striving to be fair and balanced, and to keep her personal feelings and biases out of judgment. Her continual conflicts in this endeavor made for interesting scenes as she debated these struggles with K.C. and attempted to balance mercy and justice in deciphering right and wrong.
Despite these excellent performances and the well-crafted direction, Rings pulled too many subplots into the story, giving a very “stop and go” feel to the primary plot. I was greatly intrigued with the courtroom drama, with the details of the kidnapping and the defendants’ motives. However, the many scenes focusing on Judge Crowder’s past and her friendship with K.C. were not only unnecessary to the plot, but a lot of the writing in these scenes felt wooden and cliché.
Ross’s attempt to draw parallels between actors on a stage and actors in a courtroom was also unnecessary and detracted from the themes of racism, class and inequality. The courtroom scenes and flashbacks of the kidnapping and events surrounding the trial were the most engaging and well-written scenes. But the time taken to develop the judge, rather than the defendants and victims, made it harder to empathize with or understand the perspectives of any of the characters. Furthermore, Ross’s attempts to draw all of the various subplots into the final conclusion of the play convoluted the themes, making the take-away message somewhat unclear. In short, the multiple plots made for shallow storytelling and underdeveloped characters.
The simplicity of the set in the intimate theater worked well and the tight lighting (under the design of Ethan Owen) helped to isolate the action and individual actors. The music and sound design (under the design of Joe Killian) established the mood and setting for the scenes effectively. The creation of this black box, where the audience was literally on the Grand’s main stage and only a few feet away from the actors, brought a level of inclusion and accessibility to the production that is sometimes lost in the Grand’s large venue. I hope to see more of the Grand’s productions in this fashion as it strengthened the over-all experience of the story.
The strong performances, solid direction, and exploration of inequalities in the legal system based on class distinctions and race discrimination through the lens of an actual trial in nearby New Mexico, make Rings an interesting and worthwhile night at the theater.