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"Wounded" might be the best word to describe Benji, the main character in Shawn Fisher's new play, "Streetlight Woodpecker," which opens Friday, Feb. 12, in a world-premiere production at Salt Lake Acting Company.
He's a former Marine who incurred physical and emotional wounds during combat. After he returns to his Irish-Catholic Philadelphia neighborhood, Benji finds himself trapped by leftover wounds from his battles with his overbearing, violent father. To compensate, Benji continually attempts to prove his manhood, including through his ongoing obsession with the noise made by a neighborhood woodpecker.
For the playwright, an associate professor of theater at Utah State University, Benji's character offered a chance to explore themes of contemporary manhood, as well as the influences of culture, faith and family.
Those themes should be culturally relevant to local theatergoers, even if the play is set in the kind of northeastern neighborhood where Fisher was raised on the Jersey Shore. "Benji is probably the most damaged character I've ever written," Fisher says. "He went to war to escape, and he came back even more damaged then he was when he left."
SLAC theatergoers know Fisher's work from his 2013 play, "How to Make a Rope Swing," as well as a 2014 staged reading of "Streetlight Woodpecker." Richie Call, a USU colleague of Fisher's, is also the co-artistic director of Logan's Lyric Repertory Company in Logan. He directed the reading and returned to SLAC to direct this production.
"The play's subject is a tough one, a critically injured veteran returning home, yet Shawn has the ability to take complex situations that go beyond our scope and make them accessible through his characters and rich dialogue," says artistic director Cynthia Fleming.
New artistic relationships were created through this production, Fleming says, pointing to Call, the director, as well as set designer Dennis Hassan and costume designer Nancy Hills, Fisher's USU colleagues.
The play's themes helped the theater company strike community partnerships, such as with Art Access, which will exhibit art by veterans in the theater's Green Room Gallery, as well as Canines with a Cause, which trains dogs to work with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The challenge for actor Stefan Espinosa, who plays Benji, is to create a self-destructive character whom theatergoers would believe other characters embrace and love, including his childhood friend Sam, played by Carleton Bluford. At the same time, Benji repeatedly exposes personality traits that make loving him difficult.
"Sam is so many things to Benji, and can't possibly be all those things at one time," says Espinosa, adding that while his character is something of a victim, mostly he's a victim of himself.
Espinosa, a lecturer in the theater department at Idaho State University, appreciates the opportunity to bring an antihero to life in a new play. "He's not exactly Hamlet, but he certainly goes on a bit of a journey in the course of the play and wrestles with some difficult stuff. He's reacting against his environment in ways he doesn't understand."
The character's layers and complexities are a contrast to the kind of musical theater roles the actor usually plays. "If you're a guy who can sing, you end up doing a lot of musical comedy," Espinosa says. He works with his wife, Vanessa Ballam, running educational programs for Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, where they both regularly perform in summer shows.
The play grew out of the collaborative process of Fisher's Fusion Theatre Group, which drafts scripts around social themes, then develops short plays and full-length works through workshops.
To be part of a play's development is a relatively rare opportunity for local and regional theater artists. "Being able to discuss the play with the playwright is a very special thing," Espinosa says. "It gives us ownership of the play, of the characters. It's like we're stakeholders in a way. It's not just showing up to do a part, it's being part of something."
It's the authenticity of Fisher's dialogue that sets apart his writing, according to the actor and director. "It has an electricity, an immediacy and an urgency to it," Espinosa says. "It feels very real, very natural, but at the same time it has poetry to it as well."
Call adds: "You're not going to find people who speak this way in any other play because they live in Shawn's head, based on people he grew up with and knows very well."
Salt Lake Acting Company produces a new play by Utah State University professor Shawn Fisher that explores the layers of self-destruction and violence of one wounded former Marine.
When • Previews Wednesday, Feb. 10, and Thursday, Feb. 11; opens Friday, Feb. 10, and continues through March 6; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday; 1 and 6 p.m., Sunday
Additional performances • 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 and March 1; and 2 p.m. Feb. 27 and March 5
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$42 (student, senior and 30-and-younger discounts), 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org
Also • Post-play discussion with playwright, director and cast at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14
More • Panel: "Running Away and Returning Home: An Exploration of Faith, Family and the Effects of War" will be at 4 p.m. Feb. 27