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The subject matter of "(a man enters)," a play about a father absent from his children for some 20 years, is aimed at theatergoers who love connecting long distances between various points.
The play by two Utah writers is rooted in real-life biography, even as it floats into realms of fantasy. It speaks to the pain of family relations, even as it mines laughs in escape routes out of grief. In fact, the play makes the path of grieving seem somewhat joyful.
And for the mother-daughter playwright team of Elaine Jarvik and Kate Jarvik Birch, who began writing the script last October, the collaborative process mirrored their play's subject matter at every turn. Sometimes, the mirror seemed a little too close.
Artistic creations, they learned, are a lot like families, fraught with ultimatums and compromise. No one survives without getting frayed around the edges.
Birch, a painter living in Sugar House, remembers the nights her mother, Elaine, a former Deseret News reporter (and occasional Salt Lake Tribune freelancer), called to complain that their collaboration was going nowhere. It was too weighed down in its own emotion, Jarvik told her daughter. It had nothing original to say, Jarvik worried.
A drama about a sister and brother, Rosie and Milo, hoping to see their Nobel Prize-winning father, Peter, at their grandmother's 90th birthday seemed interesting enough on its face. But could this story provide enough original material in a social landscape where divorce has become yesterday's news?
Through her daughter's reassurance, and brainstorming sessions that concentrated more on sharing drafts than rewriting each other's dialogue, the pair produced a play that caught the attention of Salt Lake Acting Company producers.
Jarvik herself was married to a man with whom she had two children, then divorced. Similar to the plot-line of "(a man enters)," Jarvik said her ex-husband, Robert Jarvik of artificial-heart fame, hasn't seen his children in 20 years.
"The irony is that a man invented an artificial heart, yet hasn't seen his children," Jarvik said. "You couldn't make up something better than that, but we couldn't use it, either. We used the broad outlines of our story, but had to create interesting characters onstage."
What keeps "(a man enters)" from becoming a "play on the couch" in the autobiographical tradition of Eugene O'Neill are its many extended scenes of whimsy and fantasy, which deepen and shape the characters.
Alexander Harbold, director of SLAC's world premiere of Birch and Jarvik's play, labels these fantasy scenes "a theater of the mind," with every character creating its own genre. More than a stroll through personal regret or anger, the play becomes a meditation on how memory becomes negotiated in adult life.
The play opens with the metaphor of a balloon, an object that like memory has its own evolution before finally taking flight. "The first recorded balloons were made from animal entrails and bladders," says Peter, played by Terence Goodman, to his daughter, Rosie, played by Amanda Mahoney. "The man who invented the rubber balloon turned a mistake into an opportunity."
The play builds mystery around Peter, a man barely there, but in a way more present than the other characters. Filtering dialogue through attempts at understanding, rather than retribution, the play allows for the possibility that parents who rarely or never see their children have reasons best left unanswered for.
"Maybe the story is better than I ever could have been," Peter tells Rosie.
It's one of the play's most heart-wrenching lines for how it reveals the limits of imagining our way out of regret. We might daydream our way toward better outcomes of what might have been, but perhaps what happened instead was, in fact, the best outcome.
Harbold said her actors come equipped with the "perfect raw spots" that make them right for the play. Goodman mentions his own recent divorce and the 7-year-old child he elected to move back to Salt Lake City to be closer to. Even Harbold fits her own description, having lost her father at an early age.
"I was almost afraid to work on this play," Harbold said. "But usually when you have that feeling, it's a good sign you should go ahead and do it."
'(a man enters)'
P Salt Lake Acting Company presents the first production of a new play by Elaine Jarvik and Kate Jarvik Birch.
When • Previews Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 2 and 3, 7:30 p.m. Opens Friday, Nov. 4, and runs through Dec. 4. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays 1 and 6 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.
Info • $15-$38. Call 801-363-7522 or visit http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for more information.