Fast-Food Alienation | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Fast-Food Alienation 

Miasma explores the complexities of a nation driven by efficiency.

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At first glance, it might seem that Eric Samuelsen has bitten off more than he'or a pack of ravenous dogs'could possibly chew in Miasma. In the space of less than 90 minutes, he touches on the grim realities of the contemporary beef industry, the evolution of the traditional American West, illegal immigration, homosexuality, apocalyptic Christianity, drug trafficking and corporate culture. All that’s missing is the Middle East, and Samuelsen would have had a reasonable approximation of any given 24-hour news cycle on CNN.


Yet in a way, it would have been almost impossible for the Utah playwright not to touch on so many different areas. Though it’s ostensibly inspired by 21st-century agribusiness practices and the scary descriptions of those practices in Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book Fast Food Nation, Miasma really addresses the underlying principle behind the Wal-Mart-ization of America: the elevation of “efficiency” to the top of our value structure. What’s surprising is that he creates something more complex than a simple critique.


He tells his story through the relationships of a Nebraska ranching family. Claire (April Fossen) occasionally visits the old homestead from her Atlanta home but only when another family member needs her to beg for money from millionaire dad Ben (Ron Frederickson). That’s because no one can stand Ben’s business partner and gold-digging girlfriend Liz (Christina Thurmond), nor can they stand the stench that permeates the town thanks to her father’s beef-raising methods. Claire’s only pleasure in coming back is visiting with Jorge (Joe Debevc), Ben’s ranch foreman and her friend since childhood.


The play’s action shifts frequently back and forth in time, visiting Claire’s youth as well as the early days'and subsequent disintegration'of Ben’s relationship with Claire’s mother (also played by Thurmond) as the characters narrate events to the audience. The shifts are easy enough to follow, yet the direct-address text occasionally delivers the play’s messages too directly; it’s clear enough that there’s a bitter element to Jorge’s control over his fellow Latinos without him frequently dropping references to being a “Judas” or that “the best overseers were the fellow slaves.” Perhaps as a holdover from when the text was a short play titled The Butcher, the Beggar and the Bedtime Buddy in Plan-B Theatre Company’s SLAM two years ago, the words sometimes feel like the product of a concern that there’s no time to waste letting the ideas evolve.


Those ideas, however, are engrossing even when they’re underlined. Samuelsen unfolds the way that obsession with the bottom line has manifested itself across the culture. Without the constant push for cheaper labor, there is no market for illegal immigrants like Jorge. The search for repeatable formulas makes the chain and the franchise the defining business model, rendering archaic the connection to the land of traditional cowboys. Yet there’s also the irony that where the traditional world of Claire’s mother rejected Jorge for being gay, his sexual orientation means nothing to Ben, for whom use-value trumps any moral concerns. “Progress” becomes a thorny notion'less human, more alienating, yet at times more tolerant of differences.


Director Adrianne Moore’s production for Plan-B'with set design by Randy Rasmussen'creates an intriguing juxtaposition between spaces that at various times represent living rooms, wide-open prairies and slaughterhouses. The cast is anchored by Fossen’s tremendous work as the play’s moral voice, as well as the versatile three-part performance of Thurmond (she also portrays Claire’s drug-dealing younger sister Beth). Yes, their words at times a bit too knowingly point out ironies and thematic ideas, but maybe that’s because Samuelsen himself was overwhelmed by how pervasively those ideas have infiltrated our society. Miasma asks, “Where’s the beef?” only to find that it’s absolutely everywhere.


Plan-B Theatre Company
Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center
Studio Theatre
138 W. 300 South
Through Sept. 24

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