Facebook Twitter

On the ‘Horizon’ — Utah playwright explores the disappearance of Everett Ruess

SHARE On the ‘Horizon’ — Utah playwright explores the disappearance of Everett Ruess

Jerry Rapier loved the script Debora Threedy had written. He thought it was a perfect fit for the Plan-B Company. But before they began to work together, he had a question: Would she want to act in it?

Threedy said no, even though her undergraduate degree was in theater and even though she has acted locally, in various productions.

She said no because "End of the Horizon" is the first full-length play she's ever produced. She wanted to help launch it. And she already had a busy life as a law professor at the University of Utah. So no, she didn't want to act, she told Rapier.

Rapier found her decision wise. He says he may not have wanted to produce the play if the playwright was hoping, also, to be the star. So, they agreed.

And yet, when the play opens Friday, Threedy will be one of the stars. She'll play Stella Ruess.

In real life Stella Ruess was artist and also the mother of an artist and nature-lover, young Everett Ruess. Everett disappeared in the Utah wilderness in 1934, when he was 20 years old. Threedy's play explores the ways in which his family suffered over his loss and tried to understand the way he felt about the Utah wilderness.

The director, Kay Shean, says there is something mystical about the way this production came together, something mystical about the coincidences and the twists of fate that drew everyone, including Threedy, more deeply into the project.

As for Threedy, she felt herself drawn to the mystery of Everett Ruess several decades ago when she moved to Utah from Chicago and began backpacking in the country where Ruess disappeared. She read a biography of Ruess.

Eight or nine years ago, she saw a documentary about Ruess made by Diane Orr. The film triggered her desire to write. She began doing research. She thought about what it must have been like to be Ruess's mother, father, older brother.

And then, over a two-day period in 2001, while staying at the home she owns in Torrey, Threedy sat down and wrote the first draft of a play. Never before or since has Threedy written so easily. She says at one point she looked at her hand, moving across the paper, and realized how automatically and amazingly fast the words were coming.

Threedy knew at the time she was not writing a history. "For me, there were lots of gaps in what was known. I felt at liberty to fill in those gaps, both factually and, more importantly, in the ways the people did the things they did.

"The characters are not the real people," she stresses.

After the ease of writing the first draft, the work became harder. Threedy tinkered with her script, had some actors do a reading of it, and tinkered some more. Then she put it away.

She kept thinking about the play in the drawer for several more years before a friend suggested she submit it to be workshoped at the new playwright's lab at the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City. Jerry Rapier was not in the audience. But several of his friends who were told him he needed to produce Threedy's piece. He called her.

As it turned out, Rapier hoped to include Threedy's play in a book of original Plan-B plays due to be published this spring. So, he staged another reading and urged Threedy to keep working on the script so she could finalize it in time for the book.

Threedy kept working on the play, eventually arriving at a place where it felt finished to her. It seemed as though she might not be too involved in the production after all.

Coincidentally, Threedy had a sabbatical leave coming right about the time Rapier wanted to produce the play. He started to see that it might be possible for her to act in the play.

But Shean was his director and Shean was against the idea. Threedy was, too, or at least she had been before she'd finished the writing. Rapier asked them to keep open minds, even as he scheduled auditions. Shean and Rapier liked the other actresses who tried out for the role, but when they heard Threedy read one line, they were sold on her.

Though Rapier and Shean had known each other for years, Rapier did not know that Shean, herself, had had a son go missing. When Shean first read the script she felt a strong connection to it, she says. She felt a strong connection to Everett's love of landscape but also, of course, she instinctively understood the family's horror.

(Unlike Everett, Shean's child came home again. He had gone to Nigeria, against his family's wishes, and was out of contact with friends and family for 18 months. He'd entered Nigeria illegally. As the U.S. government tried unsuccessfully to locate him, and his friends went to Nigeria and couldn't find even a trace, Shean and her husband and the boy's siblings went through every imaginable type of hope and despair.)

Although Threedy had done as much research as she could on the Ruess family, before she wrote the play, certain facts are still coming out. It seems that when Everett's older brother died that he willed the family's papers to the University of Utah's Marriott Library.

As she waited for the librarians to archive the Ruess collection and make them available to the public, Threedy debated whether she wanted to look at them before her play was produced. "But I couldn't help myself," she says. "I started poking around." She realized she had gotten some things right, as she imagined the feelings of her various characters. And she had also gotten some things wrong.

For example, she says, in real life, Stella was the first family member to give up hope that Everett was alive. In Threedy's play, the mother holds on the longest. The new knowledge reinforced for Threedy that her characters are characters in a work of fiction.

Still, she and the others involved in the production couldn't help wanting to see the Ruess papers for themselves, to hold the letters that Everett and his mother wrote to each other. They went together to the university campus to see the Ruess collection.

Later, Shean, Threedy and Jason Bowcutt, who plays a man who searched for Everett, and David Fetzer, who plays Everett, went to southern Utah together and walked where Everett walked.

In conjunction with the play, there will be a display of Everett Ruess's blockprints at the Rose Wagner Theatre and an exhibit at Ken Sander's Rare Books, as well as a free screening of Diane Orr's film, "Lost Forever: Everett Ruess," on March 18 at 7 p.m. at the Tower Theatre.

In many ways, Rapier says, this is the most family-friendly play Plan-B has ever produced. No foul language. No sex. Just a story of the Utah landscape and of the way one family handles loss, the way one family handles the emotions, which must come, at some point, to every family.

If you go ...

What: "The End of the Horizon"

Where: Rose Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South

When: Friday through March 30

How much: $18 adults, $10 students

Phone: 355-2787

Web: www.planbtheatre.org

Also: Post-show discussion Sunday, 4 p.m.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com