Producers describe the action this way: "On a warm North Carolina night, a girl with big hair drinks schnapps, a boy is afraid to fall asleep and a woman with nowhere to go gets in her motorhome and starts driving."
The play borrows some of the obsessions Deutsch had as a kid growing up in rural Minnesota fears of sharks and aliens. Into the story's mix, Deutsch, 34, threw details borrowed from relatives' cancer deaths and memories from family motorhome vacations.
"I took all these different things I was thinking about at the time, and they were unrelated," he says. "One of the joys of writing this play was to see how they would collide."
In "Bull Shark Attack," each of the characters Connie, a 40-something new widow, and the big-haired Tanya and anxious Jeffie, both 30-somethings with failed dreams from rural towns are sometimes unreliable narrators. "The way each presents their truths, sometimes they are more honest with themselves, and sometimes they're more delusional," Deutsch says.
Deutsch says he's interested in exploring issues of class in his plays, borrowing from his childhood growing up near the Great Lakes. He had big dreams, first moving to Los Angeles to focus on an acting career when he was 18. "You risk so much when you go after huge dreams," he says.
He says he was inspired to experiment with the monologue form after watching a 2006 Broadway performance of Brian Friel's "Faith Healer." Shotwell describes it as a "delicious creative process" to figure out how to dramatize the story.
Deutsch's dense script received a staged reading at SLAC in 2014 and was further developed in a workshop this summer. That followed his first-ever professional production, his stage adaptation of Dallas Graham and Nathan Glad's colorful children's book, "Climbing With Tigers," which played in March at SLAC.
The theater company loved the language of "Bull Shark Attack," as well as its storytelling about flawed characters trying to save their own lives, says Cynthia Fleming, SLAC's executive artistic director.
"Bull Shark Attack" marks Deutsch's reunion with Shotwell, who encouraged his playwriting while he was studying in the University of Utah's Actor Training Program in the early 2000s. Shortly after he graduated, she sought grant funding to invite him back to campus in 2005 for a Studio 115 production of "Pussycat," his first play, which was about the late-1990s rave scene in his native Minneapolis.
The director describes her former student, now a professional collaborator, as a "wonderful, beautiful spirit," adding that she's "crazy mad in love" with his writing. "I think what distinguishes his writing for me is he seems to get inside the characters and differentiate them," says Shotwell, who retired from the U. earlier this year and is planning a move to Baltimore.
Deutsch says he wrote the character of Tanya to spotlight the range of acting talents of his U. classmate Cassandra Stokes-Wylie, 37, who like him is transplanted to New York. Also in the play are April Fossen, who plays Connie (most recently seen as She in Wasatch Theatre's "Stage Kiss" and the title character in Pinnacle Acting Company's "Titus Andronicus"), and Stefan Espinosa, who plays Jeffie (recently Benji in SLAC's premiere of "Streetlight Woodpecker" and Tateh in "Ragtime" at Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, where he helps direct educational programs). "We have a brilliant cast," Shotwell says.
At its heart, the play is character driven, and Stokes-Wylie is thrilled to have been able to work on creating Tanya through the play's development. She describes her character as "kind of a hot mess" who is doing her best to survive.
"She's very different from me, which is always fun, to have the opportunity to explore someone who doesn't speak your language," the actor says. "No one has ever written a role for me, and probably nobody will ever do that again."
Sharks, aliens and sleeplessness! Oh my!
Salt Lake Acting Company presents the world premiere of Troy Deutsch's "Bull Shark Attack," starring a former classmate from the University of Utah's Acting Training Program, Cassandra Stokes-Wylie, as Tanya; also April Fossen as Connie and Stefan Espinosa as Jeffie.
The play is directed by Deutsch's former U. acting teacher, Sandra Shotwell, now a professor emeritus. On the design team: Cara Pomeroy, set; Philip R. Lowe, costumes; Jessica Greenberg, lighting, with assistant William Peterson; Jennifer Jackson, sound; projections, Patrick W. Mathis; and Jennie Sant, stage manager.
When • Sept. 7-Oct. 16: performances Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 and 6 p.m.
Additional shows • Tuesday, Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 15, 2 p.m.
Where • 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$42 (student/senior/group/30-and-under discounts), at 801-363-7522; saltlakeactingcompany.org