The world premiere of the new play “i,” a mysterious love story with a sci-fi bent, is a big deal at Pioneer Theatre Company.
Utah theatergoers helped shape the story responding to last year’s Play-by-Play staged reading. Jeff Talbott’s script is only the second one in the 4-year-old play development series to receive a full production at Pioneer, after the January 2015 premiere of Kenneth Jones’ “Alabama Story.”
“This is the future of the American theater in writing,” says Artistic Director Karen Azenberg. “This is a great story, and this offers first-class acting performances. It’s about real people that we can really, at various levels, identify with.”
While premieres happen often around town, it’s unusual for the state’s largest theater companies to produce brand-new plays. That’s because it’s a harder gamble to fill a bigger house — such as the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre’s 932 seats — while betting on an unknown title.
Then there’s this: Talking about the play’s story requires negotiating around a central spoiler.
Set in the near future, “i” tells the story of what happens after Sarah Cooper (Kathleen McElfresh, from Broadway’s “Present Laughter”) visits her doctor for a treatment because she’s feeling sad. Later, she meets Jake Bellamy (Todd Gearhart, from Broadway’s “Bye Bye Birdie,” who played the role in last year’s reading).
It’s a story about love and loss, as it explores relationships between a girl and a guy, a girl and her mother (Utah-based actor Colleen Baum plays Sarah’s mother, Virginia), and between the past and the future.
As Sarah and Jake get to know each other, they discover links that bind together their past and future. “It all gets messier and messier as the play goes on,” says the playwright, who has acted at Pioneer in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “The Odd Couple” and “Doubt.” His play, “A Public Education” received a staged reading in 2014.
Talbott hopes the unusual lower-case title signals a story about identity, in a “vaguely computerish, vaguely binary-code” sort of way. He wanted to write a love story, and was additionally inspired by news reports of laboratory experiments that planted artificial memories in mice. He eschews descriptions like “twist” or “surprise,” instead describing the plot as based around a mystery.
Marketing around a spoiler, while a familiar hurdle for movie studios or producers of Agatha Christie classics, has become something of a trend in contemporary theater as well. It’s also on display locally in Pygmalion Productions’ run of Lauren Gunderson’s’ “I and You,” playing at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center through Feb. 17.
Both stories might unfold differently on a second viewing. “In great stories, when you revisit them, you find other things,” Azenberg says. On the first viewing, theatergoers might think “i” is Sarah’s story, while it might shift on a second viewing to becoming Jake’s story, Talbott says.
Set, costumes and lighting (by Paul Tate Depoo III, Gregory Gale and Jax Messenger) are designed to suggest a slightly futuristic, but familiar, setting. “It’s not ‘Star Trek’ with crazy outfits,” Azenberg says. “It should look like things people wear. It should look like a room we know. But the whole environment looks just a degree unfamiliar. It’s not set now, but it’s set soon.”
For each subsequent production of a play that premieres at Pioneer, the Utah theater company is credited in the script. Jones’ “Alabama Story,” for example, is scheduled for its 17th regional theater production later this season.
Each successful new play produced at Pioneer increases the theater company’s reputation nationally for play development, at the same time, hopefully, piquing Utah theatergoers’ interest in new material.
Which brings the focus back to “i,” a story about 21st-century people and the human need for connection. And Azenberg hopes theatergoers will come along for the ride.
Pioneer Theatre Company’s ‘i’
When • Feb. 16-March 3: 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday matinees
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25-$44 in advance ($5 more day of show); half-price for K-12 students for Monday and Tuesday shows; at 801-581-6961, the theater box office or pioneertheatre.org
Note • Play includes adult language.