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With fecund references to evolutionary biology and ancient life forms via paleontology, "Course 86B in the Catalogue" is, at first glance, far more interesting than it has any right to be. More important, it's far more entertaining than you think it might be.
Here's a sample of what's on the dramatic bill: a main character who sleeps with fossils, a hominid who watches televised football, an ex-husband who cooks coyote stew, plus a 19th-century girl with a sleeper talent for anatomical drawings. That's just for starters. By the time a resurrected life form from the Cambrian era struts across the stage, you'll either roll your eyes or laugh yourself silly. The latter was far more prevalent at the play's Friday night opening at Salt Lake Acting Company.
Born from the pen of Kathleen Cahill, arguably Utah's most daring and vital playwright, "Course 86B" pulls at least half a dozen tricks other plays wouldn't dare. To call them tricks, though, doesn't do full justice to the way this play balances the crazy with carefully rendered context.
It begins with Stevie Stuart, a paleontologist in her late 30s, behind a lectern talking to her class about the "improbability of human existence," but slipping perilously into references about her on-the-rocks marriage to husband Bill. Life's dreams and disappointments, we learn, live and die for forces every bit as random and cruel as those that form new species through natural selection.
So it's off to Delta Community College for Stevie, a place of just a few old buildings and sedimentary rock so mysterious and removed it evokes the "riddle of existence."
"Peace and serenity cannot be found within the narrow confines of chaotic personal experience," says Stevie, played vexed and flustered by Colleen Baum. "To form an intimate communication with a piece of nature, far from the realm of human sexuality and drama, is the only way to experience real, rewarding, unchanging happiness."
Then comes Bill, played by Daniel Beecher, to win her back after his libido has strayed toward other women. Far more interesting are Stevie's interactions with Dell Nelson, played by Elise Groves. A humble-hearted girl in pioneer garb, Dell cannot bear to draw anatomically correct subjects after becoming Stevie's research assistant.
"If you learn something that doesn't make you feel good inside, what's the point of learning it?" Dell asks. "Everything I ever want to know is gonna make me feel as warm as a slice of fresh bread out of the Lord's divine bakery."
Eschewing every opportunity to engage the culture debate over evolution's merits, Cahill is far more interested in casting her characters against a backdrop of scientific knowledge that humbles and emboldens them.
When Stevie asks Dell who Eve is, we see that even those with advanced degrees don't know everything. When Dell and hominid boyfriend Sterling, played grunting by Topher Rasmussen, "groom" each other in front of the television, we smile at the thought of human life traversing three different times, all wrapped up in one scene.
Science buffs will quibble that "Course 86B" makes a few dubious assumptions surrounding evolutionary biology, but Cahill may well have written them tongue-in-cheek. What matters by play's end is not that you understand the science fortifying the dazzling, and dazzlingly funny, dialogue on display. What matters is that you marvel at Stevie's journey from despondency to new discovery, and how the "improbability of human existence" generates a courage and creativity all its own.
'Course 86B in the Catalogue'
When • Reviewed April 13. Running through May 6; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sundays
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.
Info • $15-$38. Call 801-363-7522 or visit http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for more information.
Bottom line • A funny, intriguing comedic exercise that melds drama with science, and works far more often than not. Two hours long, including a 15-minute intermission.