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"I'm afraid of what's going to happen," Megan tells Chuck, her new friend from the future.
"I'm afraid there won't be someone to ask me what I'm most afraid of," replies Chuck in Elaine Jarvik's "Based on a True Story," making its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre Company.
The two are traveling on a driverless bus in 2046. Megan is totally untethered; she is a chronic worrier her husband, Hendrix, says, "You're standing on the sidelines, watching nothing happen." Still, she has summoned enough courage to set out in a rented time machine on the Past-Future Highway to return to 2008, a time when "we were happy, and I was not afraid," and make an anniversary video for Hendrix.
She pulled a wrong lever and suddenly was projected 30 years into the future. Now she is obsessed with returning to her past. Chuck, whom she met at the Time Refugee Shelter, knows you can't do that and you also can't survive alone. "We have to look after each other," he tells her.
Nell Gwynn's Megan is the emotional center of Jarvik's play, and focusing on her helps you navigate its ups and downs. She wants to have a baby but can't seem to get pregnant. She wants to believe in something, but faith eludes her. Now in an impulsive moment, she has done something she can't undo. Like her, how many of us have said, "I made a mistake, and I need to fix it"? Like her, how many of us discover to our sorrow that there are things we cannot fix? Gwynn makes all of Megan's struggles real and accessible.
But the futuristic world that Jarvik has created is so imaginatively rich that its cleverness often becomes too much of a good thing. There are so many short, choppy scenes that it's difficult to maintain momentum or even continuity. You get distracted by the details and lose sight of where the story's emotional arc is going. The play needs to slow down and explore moments completely before jumping on to something new.
One problem is the character of Hendrix, which seems flat and undeveloped. Perhaps as a result, Mark Fossen's performance lacks energy and variety, and there's little chemistry between him and Gwynn's Megan. We long to see what makes their relationship work.
The relationship between Megan and Jason Bowcutt's Chuck is the opposite, and both Gwynn and Bowcutt shine in those scenes. Chuck is a natural nurturer, and Bowcutt captures his supportive concern and naïveté.
Colleen Baum has a ball playing all the other characters, giving each one an individual accent, attitude and look.
Director Cheryl Ann Cluff keeps the staging simple to link the short scenes, concentrate emotion and maintain pace. Moving chairs around simulates the play's many cars and buses, but there's an appropriate feeling that nobody gets anyplace. They are all "trapped in the time they are living in."
Thomas George's gridlike set and Jesse Portillo's green flickering iridescent lights that also bathe the audience create an ethereal world that could be no place or anyplace. Cluff's eclectic sound design counterpoints realistic sounds like engines with eerie ones and is enhanced by snatches of faintly heard, otherworldly melodies.
However, it's very difficult to see David Evanoff's video projections on the floor. Can't they be thrown on the back wall or appear above the stage? And, except for Baum's colorful outfits, Phillip Lowe's costumes look disappointingly pedestrian.
"Based on a True Story" overflows with inventive details and insightful dialogue, but somehow it doesn't all come together. Ironically, the play can't seem to decide which "true story" it wants to tell.
'Based on a True Story'
Utah playwright Elaine Jarvik creates a fascinating futuristic world in "Based on a True Story," but the richness of its details obscures the emotional journey of its empathetic central character.
When • Reviewed Feb. 25; continues through March 6
Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20; students, $10; planbtheatre.org; most shows are sold out. Limited ticket availability March 2 at 8 p.m. and March 6 at 5:30 p.m.
Waitlist • A prepaid wait list begins one hour before each sold-out performance, and individuals must be at the box office to be added to the list. At show time, those on the wait list will be seated, in order, in any open seats. Those unable to be seated will receive a full refund.