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It's a brave playwright who pens a love letter to his or her hometown. Most would rather delve straight into the human soul than dance around the parameters of what we now call "place."
When you're as well traveled as Brighde Mullins, who's seen her works performed in London, New York and Los Angeles, the task becomes easier. But not by much. Hopping around the world like a Mexican jumping bean helps anyone see their hometown in contrast to other cities, but you've still got to dazzle us with living, breathing characters.
For "Rare Bird," her latest play receiving its world premiere at Babcock Theatre as a fund-raiser for the University of Utah's department of theatre, Mullins gambles big on her childhood home of Las Vegas. She wins the house by betting everything on just three characters, the aging show girl Harriet, the heartbroken financial planner Phoebe, and ornithologist Professor Kroodsma. With those winnings in hand, Mullins spreads all three across a dizzying array of interlocking themes and metaphors.
The resulting sight and sound is much like a slot machine raining coins. Stomachs will no doubt growl for anyone craving solid story and conventional plot from "Rare Bird."
Mullins' play is more concerned with building an arc between the life of one aging woman in Harriet, played to aching perfection by Utah stage veteran Anne Cullimore Decker, and Phoebe, a young woman afraid to cast her heart into life's tumultuous ocean. Tracie Merrill, a professional actor schooled in Tennessee and London, plays Phoebe with all the lachrymose stagnation of a young adult established in her career, with trouble down the road if she can't free herself from a gin bottle.
In true Vegas style, the two first meet at Phoebe's stuccoed, strip-mall office when Harriet decides her finances need fixing. From there the two compare the notes of their life stories, with the aging Harriet vaguely aware she's becoming mentor to a young woman in need of a recharge, even as she laments her own heyday without becoming bitter.
"You don't have to be onstage to be a performer. You are one because you got born. You're here," Harriet tells Phoebe. "So all that glitters is gold."
The chorus in all this is Kroodsma, portrayed by Tobin Atkinson with verve and great fun to spare. With lectures and slide shows about the marvels of birds' brains, singing abilities and, above all, how they disappear without a trace, Kroodsma is in many ways the allegorical character holding Mullins' themes together, up to the moment he steps out from behind the lectern to show his affection for Phoebe in the play's most comic scene.
"No other animal has the capacity to re-assign brain cells. No other animal," Kroodsma boasts.
Adaptation, survival through song and the simple wisdom of animals weave in and out of the dialogue. The bird may be an animal of folly, flying from branch to branch, but also a creature living life to its fullest, even in a place as strange and seemingly barren as Las Vegas.
Not content with top-tier acting and expert direction from Elizabeth Williamson, "Rare Bird" also boasts the ingenious set design of Gage Williams. Through projected images on seven upright panels, he takes the audience on a virtual tour of Las Vegas, from cityscape to casino marquee and strip mall office to domestic kitchenettes.
If there's fault to be found, it's in the play's extended coda. It certainly gives Decker a welcome chance to shine in a second character. It may put a playful cap on Mullins' manifold themes. But it also stretches out the play like too much taffy, however sweet and whimsical.
It's only one off-putting dimple on a beautiful smile, however. "Rare Bird" is the kind of play that rings so charming and true, it's almost clumsy to complain.
"Rare Bird" world premiere with Anne Cullimore Decker at Babcock
R A chewy mélange of dramatic metaphor, and a paean to conflicted feelings about one's hometown, with rich performances all around .
When • March 9-11 and 14-18, 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees March 17.
Where • Babcock Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East on the lower level of Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $7.50-$20. Call 801-581-7100 or visit http://www.kingsburyhall.org for more information.
Running time • Two hours with one 10-minute intermission