Ex-Mormon and used car salesman Dave has some issues with honesty; namely, that he can’t stop employing it since he met nigh-divorcée Gail.
Directed by Jerry Rapier, Plan-B Theatre Company’s world premiere of BORDERLANDS boldly tackles the issue of stepping forward into unexpected honesty in a culture that can often, much to its detriment, subdue questions and doubts. Playwright Eric Samuelsen was inspired by “Braving the Borderlands”, a series of articles in Sunstone magazine. Authored by Jeff Burton, the articles open the floor to Mormons and their individual spirituality, addressing issues that are often ignored or swept under the rug in LDS culture.
Samuelsen takes these issues to the page and the stage, broadening the topic into a piece that is surprisingly funny, incredibly respectful, and spiritual in ways that can be appreciated by nearly any audience. He examines troubles in Mormon culture without crossing into dogma or into criticism. The honesty in the writing is refreshing; there is sympathy in the material that speaks loud and clear.
The show follows Dave (Kirt Bateman) as he romantically pursues the injured and embittered Gail (Stephanie Howell), who has come to his used car lot in Provo to purchase a car for herself. On the lot, Gail finds more than she bargained for in what she and Dave deem the Honesty Car, a space where the pair of them promise to be nothing but honest with one another.
For the first half an hour, BORDERLANDS feels like a quirky and tender indie comedy (helped along by Bateman, whose charm is reminiscent of Paul Giamatti, and the soundtrack, made up solely of Aimee Mann songs). The emotional resonance is leisurely and satisfying: the characters are interesting, the setting is original, the actors are adept. Dave’s irritable sister Phyllis (Teri Cowan), who is ill with cancer and in denial, provides a swinging counterweight to Gail and Dave’s budding relationship—Phyllis and Dave are often seen in silhouette during scene changes, a shadowy and slightly ominous effect. The Honesty Car is filled to capacity with the arrival of Brian (Topher Rasmussen), Gail’s teenaged gay nephew that has been sent out to Utah to live with his aunt.
The cast is small and wonderful, a troupe of actors that bring soul and dedication to the material. These are characters whose tragedies have already occurred, people who are in the phase of picking up the pieces, and each actor treats the subject matter with care and respect. With his easy comic timing, Bateman is the perfect everyman, radiating an I-know-this-guy vibe that makes Dave’s honesty about his colossal mistakes all the more affecting. As Brian, Rasmussen makes his entrance late in the show and lands with an immediate impact that keeps rippling outward—Rasmussen seems like a natural onstage, finding the humor in every nook and cranny while playing Brian’s discomfort and anger to the hilt.
Cowan is mystifying as Phyllis, a character that seems almost disconnected for the time devoted to her until the payoff comes during a beautiful scene in the Honesty Car. Cowan’s portrayal of a dying woman with old and unhealed wounds unfolds and becomes heartbreaking, a nice foil for Howell’s Gail, whose injuries are fresh and still stinging. At times Gail as a character seemed too obscure in her motives, perhaps needing a little more unspooling of her attraction to Dave, but Howell draws out Gail’s complex social and emotional issues with real understanding, and to watch Gail struggle with her anxiety over her own beliefs is difficult and rewarding.
The play’s emotional conclusion is as beautiful as it is surprising, a moment between the four characters that is so deeply tender it almost hurts to watch. The play offers the idea that it is hard work to give and accept love, and to make the decision not to accept it, or to admit that it may not exist in the ways we have always expected it to.
BORDERLANDS runs March 31 – April 10. Though the run is largely sold out, as of this printing there are still seats available for Saturday, April 9 at 4 P.M. and Sunday, April 10 at 2 P.M. An additional performance has been added on Sunday, April 10 at 6 P.M., for which there are tickets still available.
“BORDERLANDS”, Plan-B Theatre Company. Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (138 West 300 South, Salt Lake City). For tickets call (801) 355-ARTS or visit http://www.planbtheatrecompany.org/.