WALLACE comprises two solo plays about Salt Lake City’s hometown boy, Wallace Stegner (1909-93), and its homeboy (if we only knew it), Wallace Thurman (1902-34).
Though Thurman was born here and Stegner in Iowa, both were connected to Utah (even attending the U of U) and both were named Wallace. That was good enough for director Jerry Rapier of Plan-B Theatre Company to “braid” the plays by Jenifer Nii and Debora Threedy.
Surprisingly, given two such dissimilar souls, it works superbly.
Stegner, the environmentalist, novelist and short-story writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972, opens the play wearing a sweater with something resembling the Calumet baking powder Indian knit around it. He lived happily, one might believe from this play blissfully, with wife Mary and ultimately retired to southern Utah. “The endless green of Iowa offended me. I was used to earth tones,” he says.
Thurman, a novelist during the Harlem Renaissance (think Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston), says that Salt Lake City “had an angel on every corner and a devil on every inbound train.” He wears a sharp suit throughout; his wife Louise would ultimately sue him for every penny he never made for his hedonistic lifestyle. He died at 32 at a New York City hospital on Welfare Island.
Played effusively and with tremendous charm by Carleton Bluford, it is hard to believe this isn’t Thurman channeled for our delight and our later sorrow. He is all that.
By contrast, Stegner as portrayed by Richard Scharine is reserved and almost dour a great deal of the time – he is, after all, a much older man than Thurman ever lives to be and conflicted about many things, especially his hard father. His exceptional reading from a chapter about a boy and a colt will leave you horrified.
The twangy verses of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” are a perfect introduction to the play, but later “background settings” from the speakers sometimes proved distracting. And sitting south of the actors in this horseshoe seating arrangement was occasionally a disadvantage when words were delivered too softly to those sitting in the north.
The n-word is used somewhat liberally in this production, but by a black man in an era-appropriate setting, referencing the n—– literati, for example.
Randy Rasmussen’s set worked beautifully, particularly in Bluford’s varied utilizations of it. Cory Thorell’s lighting let the actors fade in and out without leaving the set. And where did Phil Lowe come up with Stegner’s sweater?
Bookman Ken Sanders has set himself a project in three suites: Utah’s Uconoclasts – Famous, Forgotten, and Infamous Utahns in Literary, Visual and Performing Arts. It was he who brought up Wallace Thurman to Rapier. (And Sanders likely also supplied the pre-production tunes.)
For this first suite, the literati, he has combined broadsheets of the likes of Juanita Brooks, Neal Cassady, Edward Abbey and Bernard Devoto with Trent Call’s portraits of each author, on display at the Rose Wagner, 138 W. Broadway, with a “shadow show” of prints of the portraits at his bookstore, 268 S. 200 East.
The world premiere run of WALLACE is virutally sold out; a few seats are available for the 4 p.m. performance on March 13. A new performance is being added at 5:30 p.m. on March 14; tickets for the performance go on sale March 5 at 10 a.m.
For more information visit Plan-B’s website.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.