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Pioneer Theatre Company premieres engaging, fresh 'Two Dollar Bill'

“TWO DOLLAR BILL,” through Jan. 30, Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East (801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org); running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (one intermission)

SALT LAKE CITY — A well-played story about ethics and honesty, T.J. Brady’s "Two Dollar Bill" is thought-provoking and surprisingly touching.

Seasoned Ivy League professor Bill Dudley is nominated for an award he doesn’t want to accept because he knows it will likely reveal something about his educational history, something he’s kept hidden for years.

Even while he’s scolding a student for stealing the information in a paper, he’s living a lie, and the consequences affect everyone around him — his wife, his assistant, those who’ve followed his career and everyone who’s learned at his podium. It makes for a riveting, complex story.

Mark Zimmerman, who plays Dudley, is a masterful actor with the lion's share of lines. He must go from a polished but droning history professor lecturing on war and leadership to a righteously indignant man accused of cheating the educational system. He's onstage almost nonstop and sets the tone with polish as a brilliant man fighting for his integrity while searching for his good luck bookmark, a $2 bill.

Lesley Fera plays Dudley's wife, Jessica McGovern, who is also the college dean and who is caught by surprise when Dudley's misdeeds come to light. She, too, has to make some hefty shifts in manner and reaction as the show moves along.

Then there's Ephie Aardema as Megan Tyler, a flippant and entitled student who figures it's all right to plagiarize others' work if she can prove she has a photographic memory.

Corey Allen plays Ron Ellis, the young African-American teacher's assistant who cannot believe Dudley is giving Tyler a second chance after she's caught plagiarizing.

All of the characters have to deal with owning up to past mistakes and accepting the consequences that follow, so the show requires skillful acting and careful direction. There's also some tremendous irony involved and lines that must be delivered just right.

Because it's well-done, there's a surprising amount of humor in this otherwise dark tale. At one point, it becomes a story of marital strife and fidelity more than of educational ethics. It also touches on racism.

“Two Dollar Bill” is a fresh story and remarkable journey that prompts discussion and serious thought long after it’s over. What is integrity, and in what circumstances must a person confess to a misdeed?

If there's an unexpected star in "Two Dollar Bill," which runs through Jan. 30 at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, it’s the scenic design by James Wolk.

The effect is dramatic when the opening set lifts, revealing a huge expanse of woodwork, windows and elegant appointment. There is something to look at everywhere, from sabres on the wall to rows and rows of history books, to hallways and a frosted door.

The lighting is beautifully done as well, capturing Dudley in red light and shadow at significant junctions. The stage crew impressively dresses and undresses the set efficiently and without disturbance.

With its sophisticated staging, original story and quality performances, “Two Dollar Bill” is engaging all the way through.

Content advisory: According to the theater's website, “Two Dollar Bill” contains language that would result in a PG-13 rating if the show were a movie, and “is suitable for most general audiences and for teenaged children.”

Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with more than 35 years' experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.

Email: haddoc@deseretnews.com