"Welcome to my family. We're always in each other's business," announces matriarch Emma in local playwright Miguel Santana's "The Righteous and Very Real Housewives of Utah County." Alligator Press Productions is making its debut with the world premiere of this comic and satirical portrait of the interlocked lives of five women in three generations of the Pratt family from Payson.
The play's title conjures images from a soap opera, and "Righteous Housewives" incorporates many of that genre's conventions. The characters are only skin deep, the story is episodic, and the tone varies from funny to confessional. But the play possesses some redeeming encounters and flashes of insight, and the actors make the most of what the material offers them. Some scenes, like the bridal shower in Act II, where the women play a game called How Well Do You Know Your Fiancé?, are quite entertaining.
The play revolves around the decison by Mormon grandmother Emma (Anne Cullimore Decker's) to get remarried to Dimitri (Jim Dale), a musician who is 20 years younger and a Russian émigré. Her daughter, Joy (April Fossen); daughters-in-law Ramona (Holly Fowers) and Lupita (Anne Louise Brings); granddaughter Jena (Nicki Nixon); and granddaughter-in-law Wendy (Haley McCormick) react to her plans with emotions ranging from anger and condemnation to acceptance and support.
In the process, they reveal attitudes shaped by their upbringing in the LDS Church and life within the conservative climate of Utah County or their attempt to express their individuality beyond these limitations. Joy and Ramona cope with unhappiness and stress by popping pills; Wendy tries to steer a middle course by saying, "We don't stir the pot"; Jena describes herself as "a flexible Mormon" and proclaims, "I refuse to deny other people the right to be happy"; and Lupita infuses challenging situations with her unique brand of earthy Mexican philosophy.
Santana loads the play with every conceivable social and political issue Jena is married to a black Muslim, Lupita originally entered the country illegally, Joy hosts a fundraiser to support California's Proposition 8, and the family includes both a gay couple and a suicide which sometimes seems like overload. The play's most satisfying moments result from Emma's interaction with Lupita and Jena, where she describes her loneliness, fears of growing old, and determination to create a new life. Decker handles these scenes with poignant confidence.
Dale injects some depth and humor into Dimitri, the play's least-developed character, although we need more scenes of him with Emma to understand their relationship. Fossen's steely Joy has fun-loving, vulnerable edges. McCormick's wide-eyed Wendy is naïve and wants to please everyone. Nixon's Jena is outspoken, articulate and honest, and Brings' charming Lupita is passionate and impulsive. Fowers has the biggest challenge humanizing Ramona, who is a nasty, unrelenting gargoyle of a woman, but she finds ways to reveal her underlying insecurity and frustration.
Director Andra Harbold wisely avoids separating the play's short, choppy scenes with blackouts, opting instead to have the next scene's characters come onstage as the preceding ones exit. That gives the production fluidity and continuity.
"Righteous Housewives" has little new to say about LDS family relationships, but watching five perceptive actresses flesh out the play's loyalties and conflicts offers its own rewards.
'The Righteous and Very Real Housewives of Utah County'
Bottom Line • Lively performances and fluid direction overcome the limitations of Santana's underwritten play
When • reviewed Friday, May 17. Continues Saturday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 19 at 2 and 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, May 23-25, 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 26, at 2 and 7 p.m. (Q&A with director, playwright and cast will follow the May 23 performance and May 26 matinee.)
Where • The Post Theater at Fort Douglas, 245 S. Fort Douglas Blvd., Building 636, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$27.50 at righteoushousewives.com; TicketFly.com; 801-948-0631 or at the door one hour prior. Discounts for students, seniors and large groups.
Running time • Two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission)