CEDAR CITY — A woman on the eve of retiring from a successful career at a toilet paper manufacturing company is engaged to the love of her life with plans to elope to Bora Bora. What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, everything. Thanks to a three-day alcohol-induced haze, Ruth Baker (played by Kirsten Sham) wakes up with a bag of frozen peas strapped to her head to find her life is going up in flames, only she can’t remember what she’s done or why. Thus opens the world-premier production of I Left My Dignity In My Other Purse this season at the SimonFest Theatre Company in Cedar City, Utah.
After 17 years operating as the Neil Simon Festival, the SimonFest Theatre Company is broadening its offerings to include a wide range of Broadway comedies and musicals and, in this case, opportunities to view brand new theater productions.
As the 2018 SimonFest Theatre Company New Play Contest Award Winner, Shelly Chester earned the honor of having her play in the lineup for the 2019 SimonFest season. It’s an honor she was extremely excited about, particularly on opening night. Pairing Chester’s desire to buck against the stereotypes placed on senior citizens with director Douglas Hill’s belief that “not all seniors belong in the ‘rocking chair and shawl club,’” elicits a plot and a script that showcases that just because a person is at retirement age, it doesn’t mean they’ve lost their spunk and humor.
Ruth’s best friend Marge, played by the delightful Wendy Penrod, wonderfully personifies this notion. Marge is the best friend everyone needs when everything goes wrong. Marge is the character who holds the show together, and she has so many great lines. Whether expressing frustration (“You make me wish I had more middle fingers,”) or sympathizing with a friend who doesn’t feel as young as she used to (“We’re not old, we’re well seasoned and we get better with age,”), Marge—and Penrod’s skillful depiction of the character—steals the show. However, Ruth’s monologue in the second act gives Penrod a run for her money as Ruth (Kirsten Sham) carefully recaps all the problems in her life in a way that is both moving and humorous at the same time.
When it comes to diversity of skill, the accolades have to go to Joseph Price who plays 10 distinct roles. Having one actor playing all those parts is more than just a great idea for the comedy factor. For reasons that become clear as the show concludes, it’s a necessary plot point that may blindside.
The real question mark in the cast is not a slight against the actress portraying the role, but perhaps an oversight in the writing process. Maya (played by Abigail Rose Nakken) is another friend of Ruth’s, but the character’s presence lacks context. While the deep friendship of Ruth and Marge is established with a single line in the opening scene, Maya shows up after Ruth emerges from her drunken haze, and there is really no explanation as to who she is or why she is so involved. If her relationship to Marge and Ruth is established, it is too subtle and therefore might need a revisit in the writing room.
As for the Nakken’s portrayal, her vibrant enthusiasm is a delightful addition to the stage. Her background in the portable toilet industry makes for some great laughs, and she pulls off the hoity-toity rich girl shtick well. Her need to wear white gloves in every scene feels like a plot point that could be further developed or at least addressed. The novelty is pointed out by Marge, but is never explained. If there is a reason for the gloves, it is a loose end that needs to be tied up.
The set design in the production deserves mention of its own. The entire play takes place in Ruth’s affluent high-rise apartment building. But as her life crumbles, the props and set design reflect the personal strife. Each time the lights come up, her apartment is more barren, adding a great visual component to the financial strain she now faces. However, creating that feeling took a little too much time. Transitions between each scene lagged. Whether that is due to a small stage crew or slow costume changes, either way that time needs to be cut down in order to maintain a cohesive flow.
According to Peter Sham, this production already has commitments with a theater in New Jersey and other promising opportunities beyond its time at SimonFest. There is a lot of possibility in this play as it moves forward—what a coup for southern Utah to have the option of seeing it all first.