SALT LAKE CITY — With a small cast of only four people and a single letter title, Jeff Talbott’s play "i," which premiered at Pioneer Theater Friday night, might seem small, but the issues it addresses are big and relatable.
Subtle and witty commentary on how the world interacts with technology and the possibilities and dangers of its evolution serve as an intriguing lead to the story of Sarah Cooper (Kathleen McElfresh), but the intense and emotional dialogue about the complexities of human relationships is what really connects the audience to her story and gives it meaning.
From the first moment Sarah appears on stage, right as the curtain goes up at the start of the play, it is apparent that there is a lot going on in her head.
She is unhappy, that much is clear, but when her doctor reassures her that “everything is going to be fine” and that she will feel much better after her procedure, it provides a sense of hope for the easy relief available through technology. However, it doesn’t take long for that hope to prove false — especially as the play soon reveals that her procedure involves the removal of some of her memories.
The play hinges, in part, on a truth shared in a brief appearance by the character Beth Denton (Nafeesa Monroe), who states that part of being a grown-up is recognizing that “happiness is earned, and sometimes you get more for your money and sometimes you get less.”
We can assume that she means that the lives and relationships that make life worth living are complicated. There are no shortcuts to finding happiness, and accepting the low moments is part of what allows us to enjoy the highs.
With a slightly dystopian feel to the scenery and storyline, Talbott’s work is reminiscent of the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine in the Spotless Mind." Industrial-like panels create a somewhat futuristic feel while the lack of natural or comfortable scenery creates a somewhat clinical or sterile environment. While Sarah grapples with the consequences of memory removal, there are moments that feel futuristic and a bit out of this world, but the authenticity of the characters’ relationships and how they are carried out serve to ground the story with an undeniable feeling of realness.
The story builds as it focuses on Sarah’s new romance with Jake Bellamy (Todd Gearheart), a hopefully nice man. The audiences watches this new couple deal with unclear or forgotten pasts and move through the early stages of their relationship as they discover things about one another while simultaneously learning about themselves. From their first moments of flirtations to the climatic moment when they reveal what they mean to one another, Sarah and Jake have a clear and honest connection.
One moment they are cursing one another in flirtatious banter and the next they are cursing one another for not living up to their expectations. The shifts between playful and tense moments happen just as quickly and unexpectedly as they often do in life, and it is this sense of reality that moves the play along to its compelling finish.
Despite the short run time, (one hour and 30 minutes) the small cast, and the tiny title, ‘i’ offers a big truth for audiences to walk away with.
As Jake says to Sarah, “you are still you” no matter where you go or what you leave behind. Content advisory: "i" contains strong language.