SALT LAKE CITY — Wallace will host its world-premiere tonight at Plan B Theatre Company. The play interweaves two one-act plays about two, distinct individuals. Both were named Wallace. Both were writers. Both had some sort of connection to Salt Lake City. The result is a simple and beautiful contemplation on individuals, relationships, and home.
Take Wallace Stegner (1909-1993). considered by many as “The Dean of Western Writers” he moved to Utah when he was 13, joined the Boy Scouts, graduated from the University of Utah, traveled the world but gladly claimed Salt Lake as his hometown.
Then take Wallace Thurman (1902-1934). He was born in Salt Lake City. Life carried him to Chicago, California, and New York City where he was perhaps the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. His best known novel The Blacker the Berry explores intraracial discrimination. This young gay, black American writer later returned to Salt Lake in order to better his fight against a history of illness before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 32.
All that these two men have in common is their name, their vocation, and their connection to Salt Lake City. Could these two separate and distinct stories occupy the same stage at the same time? Producing Director Jerry Rapier enlisted the help of Debora Threedy and Jenifer Nii to write individual plays about Stegner and Thurman, respectively. The scripts were developed on their own and then braided together by Rapier into the final evening of theatre now playing at the Rose Wagner Center for the Arts.
Last night’s preview performance showed the production is simple, at times inconsistent, but overall quite beautiful. The stage is bare save a wooden table and three chairs. The blocking was dynamic though there were moments of lesser clarity—I was unsure of why characters were aware of each other at certain moments and unaware at others. As the show progressed, texts from the two writers came out of the woodwork from upstage drawers and finished with pages scattered across the floor. It’s interesting that the pages on the floor—those we walked on as we left the theater—belonged to the writings of Thurman, the writer none of us had ever heard of (save one audience member). Rapier has beautifully placed the lives of these two men on stage in a way that invites discussion about the themes presented throughout.
Carleton Bluford’s performance of Wallace Thurman was very grounded and energetic. I enjoyed his mastery of the space and his willingness to connect with the audience and fellow actor Richard Scharine (Wallace Stegner). Scharine’s performance was limiting but I haven’t decided if it was the actor or the character. I often felt the play was being narrated to me. Those moments of true connection to the text and audience were few—when he went fishing with his Pa, his time at Fish Lake with his wife—but it may honestly have been my own distance from the life of Wallace Stegner that kept me from connecting to Scharine’s performance.
Lighting Designer Cory Thorell helped clarify when actors were representing themselves or a character in the other’s story while coaxing me into the world being created onstage.
Sound Designer Cheryl Ann Cluff provided wonderful aural transitions to bridge breaks in the text—the band playing across the river, the train as Thurman rode to NYC. When the sound was used to establish, or reinforce place, it was perfect. However, there were a few moments—the dogs barking—when the sound pulled me out of the action of the play lending itself more to distraction than cohesion.
The script is the most enthralling element of the production. The juxtaposition of these two lives, these two men, is attractive as we begin to experience the echoes between each text. Together they explore a connection to this city and state that seems to overlay any difference in race, religion, or economic situation. Whether you are itching to leave Utah or glad to settle in, I think you’ll find a new connection with this home after seeing the show.
The world premiere run of Wallace is literally sold out. However, a performance has been added on Sunday, March 14 at 5:30pm. Tickets to this performance will go on sale Friday, March 5th, at 10 AM. Performances take place at the Rose Wagner Center for the Arts at 138 West Broadway in Downtown Salt Lake City. For more information on this and future productions visit PlanBTheatre.org.