SALT LAKE CITY — On February 9th, 2024, I saw You Will Get Sick, written by Noah Diaz at the Salt Lake Acting Company. You Will Get Sick, which ran Off-Broadway in fall 2022, is a fast-paced comedy about a nameless man whose body is gradually deteriorating with a variety of maladies that are surreal, such as coughing up hay, or realistic, like losing the ability to walk. The set is composed of geometric-shaped walls with lights that change color throughout the performance, adding ambience or accentuating the events of the scene. Although the subject matter is quite serious, at no point does the script encourage the audience to feel pity or sorrow at his condition. The play opens with Cullen, played by Marion Markham, who is a New Yorker taking acting classes at night. Cullen responds to the infirmed man’s personal ad seeking someone to listen to him, and the main action of the rest of the play follows their gradually unfurling relationship.
Having been unfulfilled by Fate? earlier this weekend, You Will Get Sick felt like a three-course meal. There’s an off-stage narrator, played by Scotty Fletcher, who stands either in shadow or under a deep purple light as he narrates the inner thoughts of various characters or action sequences. The play starts on a high note, showing Cullen under a single spotlight as she gives a class presentation. Markham goes up to a guest in the first row and hands them the mic as she fishes for her notes.
After taking it back, she makes her way into the audience, all the while describing Cullen’s class project. The house lights turn on as Markham does this, and when she gets back to center stage, the lights dim and the single spotlight comes back. The design was solid in these ways, but the clear strength of the show was in the acting.
Ben Young, who plays the nameless protagonist is the one steady presence. Much of the rest of the cast features actors playing multiple characters that are never seen again. The best of the bunch was Josh Tewell. Tewell adapts excellently to every character he depicts, my favorite being Roscoe the waiter at the burger place where Young, Markham and Latoya Cameron, who plays the lead’s sister, meet up. Tewell’s distant wails are hilarious and his dynamic use of inflection, pitch, and tone for all the characters he plays are so distinct. Each of his characters are given much more attention and detail than everyone else’s in the production, who get small wardrobe and dialect changes.
The interplay between Young and Markham is funny to watch. In true New Yorker style, Markham’s character never misses an opportunity to defend the lead or speak her mind. For the bulk of the play, Markham plays Cullen until she transforms physically and vocally to play a homeless woman. She showed incredible range by switching once again to adopt a Midwestern accent to play the nameless man’s mother. Cameron as Polly, the lead’s protective sister is written as an intense character who transitions through anger, frustration, sadness, and tenderness all in a single scene. She grapples with her feelings about her brother’s illnesses in a grounded way. Her other strong performance came from her portrayal of teacher Taylor – not to be confused with another character, student Taylor – is probably the best of her roles; I enjoyed the scene where she instructs all the students in her acting class to pretend to be various animals as it gave such fun physical play to the scene.
The play moves quickly, but never feels rushed, though the pace made it easy to miss so many quotable moments. It centers around the relationship between Cullen and the lead, but everyone in the story impacts this relationship. Their journey feels relatable and believable as they get to know each other and Young’s character gets sicker. The lead’s inability to tell people he’s sick is epitomized when he and Markham are at a store to buy a cane, and Margo – an old coworker played by Cameron – comes out to greet him. She delivers a long rant about how taxing it is for her and her sisters to take care of her ailing father. At the end of it, the lead begins to sob.
Here, and in many moments before and after, allow Chris DuVal‘s directing to shine through. All of the dialogue comes across as natural, such as when Polly keeps referring to how full her suitcase is and when Markham asks what that is, Camera yells “My metaphorical suitcase bitch!!”. As the actors move around each other, and through their scenes, nothing felt forced. Even in the rare moments when characters weren’t interacting directly, the staging between the narrator and the nameless was an ongoing aspect that felt seamless.
Because the lead’s illness is clearly made up, You Will Get Sick isn’t an insider’s perspective on any one type of physical ailment. This paves the way for Young to have his own story and experience. On one hand, getting sicker is uniquely alienating – which the play demonstrates – but the script makes sure that what Young’s character wants, how he feels, and what’s happening to him is made known. There are layers of symbolism that I was intrigued by, but the overall message is that no one is immune from disease forever. We can embrace that reality together or run from it. And this is how Young’s character eventually comes to say that he is sick; it’s a difficult thing for him to accept or acknowledge, even as his disease is getting worse. He doesn’t want help, not from his sister or from a service. During a play, the script reveals that he had a brother, Patrick, who died of a similarly debilitating illness. But the script isn’t explicit in why Young’s refusing to fully engage the reality of his illness; it only gives hints. In fact, Young pays Markham to tell Cameron that he’s sick.
You Will Get Sick is a must see, in large part for the actors, but the creative use of sound was delightful. I found myself engaged as I heard bird wings flapping, shower noises, and other soundscapes from designer Cynthia L. Kehr Rees to enhance the minimal set design. The lighting by Michael Horejsi adds another visual component and is wonderfully executed throughout. Theatre is often an outlet to avoid the troubles of reality. On the one hand, You Will Get Sick tackles the reality of caregiving, long term illness, loneliness and isolation. On the other hand, its absurd illnesses, charismatic characters and audience engagement make the show a healthy escape from the plagues of life.