Pioneer Theatre Company’s /i/ is a Magnificent Mind Game About Memory and Identity

By Jason and Alisha Hagey

i by Jeff Talbott makes its world premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company. Directed by Karen Azenberg and located at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the University of Utah campus, i connects audiences by bringing up questions of memory and identity. “i is a mysterious love story about the threads that bind us together, set a few days after tomorrow” (Jeff Talbott).

Talbott introduces us to a world not too unlike our own. Much of life has become automated. Interactions with others are awkward and strained because our individualism has become all-encompassing. And to escape our negative experiences, we would rather not remember that which gives us personal, emotional pain.

The play begins with Sarah (Kathleen McElfresh*) waiting in a clinic for a procedure that is never explained beyond its rudimentary process: something is going to be injected into the soft spot just behind the ear. Sarah’s stress, depression, and anxiety are clear from the beginning, but we’re not made privy to the cause of these emotional ailments. What is shared with us is that she wants to no longer feel the way she does. Watching Sarah’s internal and external struggle, she is deeply human and resonates most people’s feelings of just wanting to forget all that has harmed us, all that has made us feel lost and alone in the world.

This is the genius of Talbott’s play: though it is set in a very near future, instead of focusing on the futurism, he focuses on the humanity. His writing is stark, careful, and has all of the idiosyncrasies of human communication. He focuses on portraying real emotions and creating real human beings who are experiencing something all too common in our modern culture: existential angst. Things should be good, things should be improving, but there is something in us that rejects that moment. We know we are unhappy. Watching the play, we understand Sarah’s plight, not because we know her history – because that’s not the point – but because we know how she feels. Talbott avoids clichés; his characters are complex and layered. Their motivations are not clear, but it is clear that they are motivated. Thus, i thrusts us into every character’s emotional landscape and we love the experience.

The writing is key to the power of this production, but the writing is punctuated by the performances of the four actors. McElfresh has an incredible presence on stage. Even as someone wilting, tortured by her past, her reality is our reality. Her every nuance is one that we feel and innately understand. McElfresh takes us on her journey with emotional rawness and her portrayal speaks truth to what it means to be human. I cannot conceive of anyone else in this role. She owned it.

Todd Gearhart* (Jake Bellamy) defies all stereotypes because of his subtle shades of expression. A lesser actor would have reduced Jake to a predictable character, but Gearhart is perfectly imperfect. He has his positives and his negatives and never strays to a simple character. As we watch his interactions with Sarah, he’s a nice guy at one moment and, at another, he’s conflicted and antagonistic. Gearhart seamlessly flits between these moments bringing the whole of Jake into a pitch-perfect man in all his imperfections. In equal measure, you are disgusted and delighted with him. We all either know someone like him or we are him.

Colleen Baum* (Virginia Cooper) plays Sarah’s mother and their chemistry as a mother-daughter duet is at once truthful and has all the layers that a concerned mother and struggling daughter would have. Baum is subtle. Her performance is clean, poised, and honest. She reminds us that our own mothers are as imperfect as we are. We may not have the shared experiences in our youth, but we do have shared emotions. Baum is beautiful.

The most difficult part for an actor portraying multiple roles is to make each character a distinct identity. I couldn’t even tell you how many parts Nafeesa Monroe* (Beth Denton and other roles) plays, but each is insanely different and still keeps with the human honesty of the other characters in the play. Monroe is a consternated customer service employee, a confused art viewer, a young mother, and a woman who underwent Sarah’s procedure five years previous. Each character is distinct. Each character is real. And, if you aren’t paying attention, you won’t realize they were the same woman. She’s that good.

They are human beings up there on stage. None of them perfect, none of them the moral center. They are all flawed. There is no moral center, but in contrast, they are all making decisions and trying to live life. They are all human and thus all relatable. It isn’t about morality and amorality. The characters aren’t searching for a moment of joy but rather a sense of connection and a feeling of contentment and of happiness. Perhaps it is just that this is what I am currently seeking in my life so much that I connected to all four characters and to the subtle nuance of all four actors.

The show is understated and honest. That honesty bound me to the story and to their lives. In fact, i is better and deeper the more I think about it. Each of the characters is in search of their identity both as individuals and in various relationships.

It is fair to say that we’ve all had days we wish to experience over and over again – those kismet experiences that join us to simple joys and overall bliss. In contrast, we’ve had moments (possibly days, weeks, or even years) of sheer pain. Those times and trials have led me to exclaim how I wish I could just erase that experience, start again, have a do-over, or just forget the pain altogether. What I dismiss in those instances of extreme pain and blissful joy is that I need both. I think  C.S. Lewis, quoting his wife Joy Davidman, sums it up the best: “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

I left the show knowing that I had experienced something special, something magical, something rare in theatre here in Utah. We were given a beautiful play with incredible talent across the board. It was delivered in love, like so much is. Yet, this was more than the sum of its parts. It navigated joy and sorrow together with master strokes. The entire night reminded me of the good and bad, of the joys and sorrows, in my own life and how important those times are for me. i held onto the ideas of personal experience forming who we are. It discussed memories as both liberty and prison.

Part of that process, and what Talbott makes the subtle point of, is that happiness in life is dependent upon knowing who we are. The moment we forget the past, our own experiences, is the moment we create a kind of hole in our soul. Giving up a part of who we are by removing those memories does not necessarily mean removing the angst, the pain, the emotional anguish that experience leaves behind. Instead, letting go of memories that made us who we are is damaging to our identity and removes from us only the meaning behind our experiences. We can never be happy when we run from life. We have to embrace life for its myriad vicissitudes to find happiness.

You can’t talk about this show and not mention the incredible design team. Paul Tate dePoo created a set that is both modernist and contemporary to today. It is just close enough to be jarringly familiar. Gregory Gale took lines we are familiar with and pieces we wear and gave them just a small twist. I especially loved how we meet the Doctor in the first scene and her jacket felt like a modified straightjacket. This juxtaposed nicely with the stark lines and color palette of the set. We immediately connected to Sarah’s pain and discomfort. Jax Messenger created a lighting plot that complimented all the other designs while still giving a sense of movement and curve. There are a few instances where we see reflected lights, like apartment high rise windows. Instead of being the normal straight lines, there was a movement and a slight angle to them as if everything was rounded and vaguely sanitized. It was a simple idea yet it added a complexity of thought and dimension to the story. Will Van Dyke wrote an original score to accompany this play. The music wasn’t just a transitional tool but rather another character layered with emotion and complexity.

PTC has always held a standard for Utah theatre as it has strived for excellence. Even so, there has been a shift in the last six years. This change came with Karen Azenberg as the artistic director. Under her guidance (and direction), Pioneer Theatre Company has begun to rival the quality and content of other theatres around the world. This particular production made me stop and compare this season with other seasons, this performance with those that are my favorite from the Royal National Theatre in London. Personally, I have seen a care and quality come to the stage that we have been missing here in Utah. I cannot thank Azenberg enough for instilling us with these brilliant experiences and evoking such titular conversations. I hope for many more years with her genius at the helm.

I cannot recommend this show enough. You have never seen this production – it is a world premiere – but do not allow the newness of this production to sway you from seeing it. The show is a revelation. If you want an evening where you spend your night pondering on the experience and then want a morning where you’re still contemplating the many layers and meanings behind the production, then i is for you. If you like to think, this show is for you. If you want to celebrate humanity with all its glorious foibles, this play is for you.

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association.

Note: Play includes adult language.

Pioneer Theatre Company presents i by Jeff Talbott
Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City, UT
Feb. 16-March 3. Monday-Thursday 7:00 PM; Friday-Saturday 7:30 PM; Saturday matinees 2:00 PM
Tickets: $25-$44 in advance ($5 more day of show); half-price for K-12 students for Monday and Tuesday shows
Pioneer Theatre Company’s Facebook Page

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