SALT LAKE CITY — Pygmalion Productions’ newest offering, If This Wall Could Talk, is a 40-minute video that weaves together the stories of Utah women from both the past and present. Inspired by the Utah Women Mural by Jann Haworth and Alex Johnstone, located on the side of Zions Bank’s Dinwoody Building in Salt Lake City, 12 women who appear on the mural are featured in If This Wall Could Talk. Six of those are living women, prompted to share what they have learned during the Coronavirus pandemic, and what changes they would like to see coming emerge from it. The other six women are portrayals of historical figures, where short theatrical pieces were written by various Utah-based female playwrights: Debora Threedy, Olivia Custodio, Morag Shepherd, Julie Jensen, Elaine Jarvik, and Jenny Kokai. If This Wall Could Talk, accompanied throughout by the classical orchestrations of French composer Claude Debussy, takes a motivating perspective, asking viewers to evaluate what the pandemic has taught them and how the state would like to move into the future.
Directed by Teresa Sanderson, If This Wall Could Talk is largely equal parts performance and interview. The performances of historic characters, all who have lived in and significantly contributed to the state of Utah, interspersed with living Utah women is a unique format. While the modern women discuss their thoughts on the pandemic and the future they envision, the theatrical historic portrayals bring to light relevant parallels of issues that have been afflicting women for centuries. I appreciated the array of different prominent women featured, including Salt Lake City mayor Erin Mendenhall. The other live women featured are Julie Jensen, Jensie Anderson, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, Linda Smith, and Dr. Kristen Reis. Despite the casualness of these women’s accounts, I was intrigued by their perspectives and moved by their poignant thoughts about the pandemic.
Actors Barb Gandy, Kay Howell Shean, Stephanie Howell, Ariana Broumas Farber, Brenda Hattingh, Natalie Keezer, and Vicky Pugmire tell the stories of American frontierswoman Calamity Jane; actress Maude Adams; historian and author Juanita Brooks; Emma McVicker, the Utah head of education in 1890; Maud May Babcock, the first female member of the University of Utah faculty in 1901; and Belle London, the owner of a notorious brothel that opened in 1889 in Ogden. With all the historic characters having ties to Utah history, the stories are appropriate, familiar and interesting, illuminating how current times compare and contrast with the character’s past realities.
While I felt this production was a fine substitute for live theatre during pandemic times (and I appreciate Pygmalion’s efforts to provide an innovative alternative), this streaming production did not work nearly as well as others that I have recently seen. I was confused by a few obvious mistakes and poor audio quality throughout. I typically can forgive small technical glitches, line flubs or stutters. However, in this case these mistakes appeared lazy and made for a rough video. In one particular scene, a cell phone text tone was heard, followed by shaky camera work, and I was very surprised that this version of the scene was still used. It seems like it would have been easy enough, certainly worthwhile, to refilm the short scenes or edit out some of the technical problems.
If This Wall Could Talk, while not a polished piece, is short, available for free, and provides perspectives and messages that are worth hearing. While it could have been more impactful, the production gives voice to Utah women with a passion for forward momentum, dedicated to improving society, particularly for women and other marginalized groups. The coronavirus pandemic has been difficult and humbling for many, exposing flaws in society. Recognizing that there are changes to make can help this state come back stronger, creating a society that is more resilient and equitable. I share that hope with these women and fellow community members, and I am reassured how much art can play a critical role in the betterment of humanity.