Martirio, "the barbecue sauce capital of Texas," is a town where every facet of life seems to revolve around the Bar-B-Chew Barn restaurant.
Then Jesus Navarro, friend to 15-year-old Vernon Little, kills 16 classmates and himself in a mass shooting that exposes the darkest of fault lines in United States culture.
The media turn into vultures, Vernon is implicated as an accessory, and all the finger-licking ribs in the world can't keep trouble from rearing its ugly head. In desperate attempts to rid himself of suspicion and find a better life, the young hero makes a dash for Houston and then Mexico, where he hopes to find solace at last from the cynical machinations of adults fueled by America's culture of television and constant stream of fast food.
Vernon God Little, the dark and satiric first novel by DBC Pierre, wowed readers in Britain when it was published in 2003. It won that country's Man Booker Prize that same year, when judges praised its dark, satiric way with story and Texas vernacular that mixed vulgarity and hilarity.
The athletic qualities of the script of the stage adaptation impressed Matthew Toronto, director of the stage production at the University of Utah, which plays through Sept. 30 at the Babcock Theatre. Adapted for stage by Tonya Ronder, the play propels theatergoers through scenes so rapid-fire it often re-creates the media frenzy that follows mass shootings.
"It was this constant, cacophonous sea moving ahead," Toronto said. "The character of Vernon felt alive and truthful, and I saw the whole story transforming before my eyes. Then, when I read the book, I was not at all disappointed by the play."
Theatergoers longing for fast-paced drama needn't worry. "Vernon God Little" boasts some 50 characters, played by a cast of 15. The demands are so large, Toronto said, that each actor plays up to six characters, with some women playing male characters and some men playing female characters.
Gun violence seems to punctuate American life in the wake of 1999's Columbine High School massacre, 2007's mass murder of 32 people at Virginia Tech, the 2011 Tucson supermarket shooting that killed six and injured 13 (including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) and this year's shooting deaths of 12 in Aurora, Colo., and six at a Wisconsin Sikh Temple.
What "Vernon God Little" reveals, Toronto said, is how violent episodes rend lives so irreversibly that sometimes only the laughter of the damned survives.
"Even murderers are loved by their families" is a line that reverberates through "Vernon God Little," detonating in the mouths of each character as it changes meaning each time.
Jaten McGriff, a senior in the U.'s Actor Training Program, said the role is accessible to him both because he grew up in a conservative Mormon culture that he said helped him understand the similar social mores of small-town Texas, and because he identifies with Vernon's developing cynicism as the events of his friend Jesus' shooting envelop him by implication.
"In a way, it's like backtracking through your own youth," McGriff said. "Vernon goes through these really dark places where he's completely left behind and betrayed by those he trusts. It's through Vernon, and the play, that you see a lot of society's rough edges."
Toronto, a professional director and visiting professor from Pennsylvania State University, said the recent Sandusky sex-abuse scandal that engulfed the university gave him a keen eye on how people cope with tragedy that plays out in families, through institutions and on the public stage through the media. Toronto said he went to great lengths to apply those sensitivities to this production.
"The play is a call to be responsible," he said. "Our response to tragedy has consequences."
"Vernon God Little" never flinches in that regard, right down to its salty language at which some might take offense.
Dark as the scenes sometimes get, the play is also entertaining and relevant, Toronto said. He hopes audience members will remain on its dramatic roller-coaster ride at all times, even if they feel like jumping off.
"It's a really nice mix of satire and even comedy," he said. "People may wince sometimes, but there's going to be a lot of laughs too."
'Vernon God Little'
University of Utah theater stages an adaptation of Vernon God Little, a novel about teenage gun violence.
When • Sept. 21-23 and 27-30, 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees Sept. 29 and 30.
Where • Babcock Theatre in lower level of Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, on University of Utah campus
Info • $8-$15. Call 801-581-7100 or visit www.kingtix.com for more information.