SALT LAKE CITY — While you are surely beginning to feel the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak in your own life, it is my sorry duty to report to you on one of the many local artistic offerings that fell victim to this national emergency. Dennis Kelly’s script, Girls and Boys, is a brilliant and troubling piece. In the days since watching Morgan Werder’s brave and captivating one-person performance, my thoughts have turned again and again to the disturbing reality the play sheds light on and the unspoken truths that we all live with.
If, like myself, you are unfamiliar with this quaintly named 90-minute 2018 script, I encourage you to search it out in any form you can and spend some time with it. Kelly weaves together a tragedy born from love. Our unnamed narrator sees her unnamed future husband in an airport. Together they build a life and pursue their dreams. They marry and start a family. But what should be a happily ever after ends in a nightmare.
The first five minutes of being on stage were likely the longest of Werder’s professional life. Werder (who uses the pronouns “they” and “them”) entered the stage and confidently began the opening scene only to quickly lose the thread. I saw the panic rise in their eyes as they wracked their brain for words that had decidedly fled. Werder eventually excused themself and shortly reentered starting again from the top. My heart reached out as they lost the lines a second time and had to fight, with every bit of courage in their body, to remain on stage for two intense minutes of silent searching. In a day full of my own personal anxiety, witnessing this moment of sheer courage and honest vulnerability was inspiring. After this momentous struggle out of the silence and back into the telling, Werder’s mastery over the script never again faltered. They overcame this setback so gloriously that in the end it made the entire performance more admirable than it would have otherwise been. Throughout the show, Werder sits or moves alone on a bare stage with just one chair, with words and body their only tools. I found myself mesmerized with their telling of the playwright’s extraordinarily crafted script, replete with simple lyrical language.
Werder, donning a nearly flawless British accent, disappeared into the role. Posture, facial expressions, and physicality all drew me in to the degree that I found myself building the imagined world around the unnamed character. As Werder enacted the character’s memories of the home and family, I could picture the surrounding kitchen. As the character entered a pub, looking for her husband, the location was on full display in my own mind. I cannot offer enough commendations for this performance directed with beautiful ease by Jamie Rocha Allan. As the character moved between directly ‘chatting’ with the audience and performing memories, the simple changes in lights and sound guided me through the action.
The play deals with some upsetting details, including graphic descriptions of violence. But this depiction is not done to shock or scintillate the audience. In fact the script goes out of its way to be cautious and clinical in presenting the story and the facts that support this person’s experience. The script and the performance both cautiously avoid sentimentality or didacticism in favor of turning an unflinching look at the uncomfortable truth that male violence has dominated our cultural history and continues to impact lives today. This performance is important and beautifully executed. Perhaps one day it will have a chance to be seen by more audiences members who can benefit from it and appreciate it fully.