Review: World premiere of /i/ speaks to confusion, heartache

The cast of "i." Photo: Pioneer Theatre Company

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Feb. 22, 2018 (Gephardt Daily) — Sarah Cooper needs a fresh start. She can’t remember why she needs it, but she relocates to a new place where voices are quiet, colors are muted, and everyone is happy … enough.

So begins /i/, Pioneer Theatre’s world premiere of Jeff Talbot’s intimate, off-kilter relationship story, set just slightly into a mostly similar future.

Sarah (Kathleen McElfresh) meets Jake Bellamy (Todd Gearhart) near a pharmacy, and the two start a cute conversation, which ends in Jake getting Sarah’s number.

That launches a tentative relationship between two wounded souls who long for a human connection. To reveal more of the plot would ruin the ending.

L-R: Colleen Baum and Kathleen McElfresh. Photo: Pioneer Theatre Company

/i/ is set in an unspecified time and place, and concrete details are few and far between. Adding a welcome grounding element is Virginia Cooper, Sarah’s mom, played by local theater treasure Colleen Baum.

Virginia is a typical mother, preoccupied with details of her own life, but ready to get on her cell phone and offer emotional support that might help her daughter to move forward from the vague dread and crying fits. Baum disappears into the role, which offers a little levity and relief to a plot that can be pretty sober.

Also adding some interest are the many different characters played by Nafessa Monroe, who steps in any time the action requires a clinician, waitress, pharmacist or new acquaintance. She laughs it off when told that people seem to look alike in Sarah’s new community.

L-R: Nafeesa Monroe and Kathleen McElfresh. Photo: Pioneer Theatre Company

But carrying the story are Sarah and Jake, who sit together, at a table or bench, center stage on a modern, modular set that is mostly free of visual details except for the small portion being used at any given time.

This play begs for a more intimate space where the audience would not have to be visually tricked into focusing on the static couple.

One problem with Sarah and Jake is they don’t seem all that into each other. To the casual observer in the theater seats, the relationship just doesn’t seem all that rewarding or fun.

But then, maybe that’s just how things are in their mysteriously muted community. Who can say — until the end of the show. And the final reveal may just be intriguing enough to make you wish the storytelling had begun at that point.

After the curtain call, the audience is left with some big issues to ponder, which is the reason connoisseurs love challenging theater. And although the lack of clarity might vex some audience members, there is a payoff, and /i/ is a rare chance to see a world premiere.

/i/ — and that title will be explained — plays at 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays through March 3 at Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City. For ticket information, click here.

L-R: Todd Gearhart and Kathleen McElfresh. Photo: Pioneer Theatre Company


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