Utah playwright's 'Cheat' charts the perils of war, words and silent passion

Stage • Julie Jensen's 'Cheat' focuses on the lines of unspoken love on the WWII assembly line.
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"Cheat," Pygmalion Productions' latest dramatic offering, focuses on women thrust into workday lives at an aircraft repair facility during WW II. Utah playwright Julie Jensen's drama wastes little time planting potent metaphor deep inside everyday conversation.

Discussing the trials of rationing food during wartime, Roxy, a chatty worker in her 20s, and Reva, a more quiet woman in her 40s, discuss the veracity of stories about people looting meat from tipped-over trucks.

"People just make up things like that when they want them too much," says a weary Reva. "I heard the same story, only the truck was full of wedding cakes."

From its first scene on, Jensen's script rarely swerves from dialogue either packed with subtext, filled with awkward silence or aching from the pain Roxy and Reva feel of never speaking their hearts. Not until its fifth scene, where the two "move through a complicated maze to a darkened stairwell," as described in Jensen's stage directions, does the audience see and hear what's been hidden all along.

Don't be too quick to either dismiss or emphasize the lesbian romance at the center of this play. Jensen states in a note at the script's beginning that "Cheat" is a drama that moves between silence and its interruption. As such, it's a perilous territory of discourse that we all inhabit, gay or straight.

"These are people who do not speak about things that are the most important to them," Jensen writes. "And in that way they resemble us all."

"Cheat," which Jensen finished between 1999 and 2000, was originally set in the WWII assembly lines of Michigan. For Pygmalion's version, directed by company artistic director Fran Pruyn, Jensen altered a few details to make the drama Utahcentric. Roxy and Reva work at Utah's Hill Field, home to more than 20,000 civilian and military workers at the peak of the war, before it became known as Hill Air Force Base.

Jensen said her fascination with the era is fed by the fact that women's roles were on the cusp of incredible change. While men suffered and fought in the war, women were slowly coming to realize just how much they were defined by orders from the top.

It was a time of solidarity when people did what they were told and what the nation demanded of them. It was also a time when certain things couldn't be spoken about, and women, once they'd done their duty in munitions factories, were summarily dismissed and returned to domestic duties. "It was the weirdest time for women," Jensen said. "It was a cheat of a time."

The fine line between cultural change and societal acceptance is a recurring theme for the Utah playwright, who in other plays has explored women's roles in America's westward expansions and gender roles in American Indian culture.

Cassandra Stokes-Wylie, who plays Roxy, said the play's rich subtext poses challenges as it plays on what's implied as characters talk and what the audience can imagine the characters truly want to say. "There are pages and pages of dialogue with just quick, one-word answers," Stokes-Wylie said. "No one's asking direct questions."

D-Dubb, Roxy's well-meaning but tone-deaf and almost clueless husband, stumbles around their marriage reciting a litany of bad jokes and complaining about his wife's morbid sense of the world. Perhaps the play's most direct character is Edie, Roxy and Reva's colleague in the repair facility, who plays the cheery woman eager for the war to end so she can raise a large family.

Roxy and Reva's yearning for a place where they can be together is complicated by Reva's anxiety over Sonny, her son fighting the Nazi army in Europe. "I go crazy when I think you might worry alone," Roxy tells Reva. "I must know what you know."

Pruyn said she has long been drawn toward Jensen's script because there are "a million right ways to play" its two main characters, Roxy and Reva.

"I love its arc, its tight spareness of dialogue," Pruyn said. "It's a brilliant show in its complexity and its simplicity, and it's a wonderful show for actors to work on, also for its simplicity and complexity."


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Pygmalion Productions' 'Cheat'

When • Feb. 21-March 9. Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays matinees, 2 p.m., with a 3 p.m. Saturday matinee March 9.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $20. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit arttix.org or pygmalionproductions.org for more information.