Review: ‘One Big Union’ a Plan-B triumph

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (Gephardt Daily) — Plan-B Theatre’s “One Big Union” opened to a nation in pieces.

The world premiere — written by Debora Threedy to tell the story of the life and 1915 execution death of Union organizer Joe Hill — opened to a preview audience just hours after the upset election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

Arts loving audience members arrived looking somewhat stunned, and left even more so after hearing the historic tale of an innocent man considered by the government to be an outsider, unworthy of a fair trial after he was charged with killing a Utah shopkeeper.

At least that’s the view Threedy takes. Other historians and law experts who have examined Hill’s case have concluded he was guilty as charged.

But one thing hard to dispute is the quality of “One Big Union,” which quickly sold out its very short run, concluding Sunday.

At the heart of the show’s success is Roger Dunbar as Hill, depicted as an easy-going guy who knows the power of a folk song to unite a movement. Dunbar, who bears a striking resemblance to pictures of the real Hill, allows feelings to flow from voice and face.

Activist Joe Hill (1879-1915). Photo: Wikipedia
Activist Joe Hill (1879-1915). Photo: Wikipedia

There is no sense that Dunbar is acting. He seems to be the actual Hill, emotions flowing so freely but subtly that the audience in the intimate theater can join the journey and feel everything Hill is experiencing.

Dunbar is ably supported by an ensemble cast, with Carleton Bluford as a “working stiff,” and four more actors gliding seamlessly in and out of multiple roles. Each one — Daniel Beecher, April Fossen, Jay Perry and Tracie Merrill — made us see distinctly different characters despite a lack of costume changes.

And all cast members lent strong singing voices to the tunes and lyrics composed by the real Hill, with messages that still resonate today.

The set, by Keven Myhre, was simple and ingenious, with a few pieces serving in multiple roles. Aaron Swenson’s period costumes served as a subtle reminder that the hundred-year-old tale, seemingly modern in its message, was actually plucked from Utah’s past.

Lighting by Jesse Portillo set the mood and seemed to embrace the actors. Direction by Jason Bowcutt drew all the elements together, and choreography by Stephanie Howell tied it up with a fanciful bow.

Plan-B is known for small, high-quality productions of plays with socially conscious themes, and there’s little doubt that more will follow this season. Still, we can’t help but wish that “One Big Union” had a longer run, to touch more people.

For more information on Plan-B Theatre’s season, click here.

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