nSalt Lake Acting Company has earned its reputation as a place for challenging, offbeat theater'but that doesn’t mean there’s no place there for a satisfying, well-observed character study. On an estate in rural Massachusetts circa 1919, widowed society lady Dulce Bainbridge (Alexandra Harbold) lives alone with her household staff, including gardener Sarah Harding (Tracie Merrill). Sarah has long been writing private poetry, so she doesn’t expect that a few of them would somehow find their way into the hands of Atlantic Monthly editor Peter Woodburn (Mark Gollaher). But they do, and Woodburn’s fascination with publishing them'an exposure Sarah doesn’t desire'leads him into a collision with both Sarah and Dulce.
Thematically, playwright Joan Ackermann touches on a few interesting ideas: clashing ideas about romanticized nature, the risk of opening oneself to the world after being hurt emotionally, shifting turn-of-the-century gender roles. But Ice Glen works primarily not because it’s profound, but because it’s so simple and effective at creating its characters. Ackermann’s script bubbles over with humor and small grace notes, all brought to life by director David Mong’s stellar cast. There’s praiseworthy work everywhere you look here'Dee Macaluso’s tart-tongued housekeeper, Josh Pierson as simple-minded houseboy Denby'but Harbold’s performance still stands out. She shows great comic timing as she fumbles her way through her first meeting with Woodburn, trying to shake off the atrophy in her social interaction muscles. Yet there’s also a reined-in ferocity as she realizes she’s competing for Woodburn’s attentions with Sarah’s poetry. Between this performance and her work in Fat Pig earlier this fall, Harbold is announcing herself as one of local theater’s most exciting new faces.nn
Everywhere you look in this production, though, you find something that hits just the right notes. Keven Myhre’s set backdrops form a delicate lace of fall colors, accented by James M. Craig’s lighting design. You may not be used to seeing something as genteel as Ice Glen on the SLAC stage'but you’ll be glad you did.nn
Facing East is exactly the kind of play that can go horribly wrong. All the ingredients for a ham-fisted schmaltz-fest are in place: Grieving Mormon parents of a gay suicide son stand by his fresh grave and are confronted by his lover, arriving late to avoid the crowd. You know there’s going to be yelling and crying. You fear melodrama. But when Plan-B Theatre Company’s latest world premiere submerges its audience in the local front of the national culture war, the result is an effective examination of Utah’s unique culture and the cost of differentiating between God and love.
That’s not to say that Facing East isn’t a little heavy-handed at times. Marcus, the dead man’s lover (Jay Perry), lays the blame at the parents’ feet, yelling and wagging a finger: “You! You and your church did this!” Alex, the father (Charles Lynn Frost), asks Ruth (Jayne Luke) if she is relieved that their son is dead. The mother voices the familiar story of a good Mormon woman giving up her dreams to raise children and keep an impeccable home.nn
However, every element of the production tells us that despite the familiar details, this story is a fable and not to be taken literally. The set design by Randy Rasmussen shows us an abstract of a graveside, not a real place at all. The lighting by Cory Thorell allows the story to move seamlessly across space and time without losing anyone along the way. Carol Lynn Pearson’s script gives us characters that are simultaneously archetypal and flesh-and-blood people. Their instructive outbursts and unrealistic compassion are balanced by details and background that make them ultimately believable, or at least close enough. More than that, you want to believe in them. If we follow the example of their hesitant attempts at mutual understanding, there may be hope for a cultural armistice after all.nn
nPlan-B Theatre Company
nRose Wagner Performing Arts Center
n138 W. 300 South
nThrough Nov. 26
nSalt Lake Acting Company
n168 W. 500 North.
nThrough Dec. 3
Thu., Nov. 20, 7 p.m. / Free