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Suspension of disbelief is standard operating procedure for anyone with an appetite for science fiction, fantasy and horror films. Thanks to computer special effects, the implausible seems more plausible with every technological advance.
But for theater? Not so much.
Kathleen Cahill's "Course 86B in the Catalogue" takes a wrecking ball to all that, spinning tales through time travel, characters who speak across centuries, and dialogue that evolves through science and humor. The only special effect on offer, really, is set design divided into a series of diminishing backdrops.
With all that as a preface to Salt Lake Acting Company's world premiere production of her play, opening in previews April 11 with the run continuing through May 6, it's no surprise to learn that Cahill was reading books such as David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity and other science titles while putting pen to script.
Cahill is an award-winning Utah-based playwright who works as senior editor for PBS, where she writes introductions for "Downton Abbey." She originally started work on a script about British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, a vital contributor to the discovery of DNA. When another playwright got there first, Cahill decided to think big for her next work-in-progress.
The catalyst was one of her first trips to southern Utah as a transplant from Connecticut. Besides finding herself in awe of the redrock landscape and an archaeological site containing prehistoric plants, she was shocked by a tour guide's story of how he was fired from his job as a local high-school teacher after a student reported he was teaching evolution.
Cahill's head spun. But instead of writing a play centered on the polemics surrounding Charles Darwin, she decided on writing a story about why people believe what they do, what they can agree on, and the ways personal growth flexes its own muscles in the face of natural selection.
"We all agree on what year it is, even though we can't prove it," Cahill said. "Once you start throwing those cards in the air, anything can happen."
In "Course 86B in the Catalogue," just about anything does happen. Paleontology professor Stevie Stuart, played by Colleen Baum, enlists research assistant Dell Nelson, played by Elise Groves, a modest girl of 18 with astounding talent as an anatomist, from the 19th century. Dell's boyfriend Sterling Jensen, played by Topher Rasmussen, is a grunting, hairy hominid with a borderline vocabulary. Stevie's philandering husband, Bill, played by Daniel Beecher, comes to hunt with a spear and cook coyote stew.
People sleep with fossils and watch football games on the television. They blush, argue and tussle over cookies. But true to the wondrous capacity of people to believe almost anything presented to them, the characters never question the hilarious anomalies and curiosities in front of them.
"God made man in his own image and gave him dominance over the lower creatures," Dell says. "So why is it so hard to think that man lived with dinosaurs?"
"We're like Opabinia," Stevie says of her favorite fossil record. "We stand on the threshold of possibilities!"
At times, the script reads like such a big, billowing canvas of scientific metaphor it's difficult to pull it all together. Thanks to a liberal sprinkling of punchlines throughout, Cahill manages to wrap up scene after scene in lavish bow-ties.
"That dog ate my student's boyfriend's mother" is a line you'll hear in precious few other plays, let alone one about a paleontologist who takes a job teaching at an obscure community college in the middle of nowhere.
"My hero Tony Kushner [playwright of 'Angels in America'] said that writing a play is a lot like making lasagna," Cahill said. "You layer and stuff it as much as you can so that everything stays in. This play is the opposite of minimalism."
Much like the promise of science itself, "Course 86B in the Catalogue" hints at a dramatic evolutionary theory by its end, even if everything still seems in process when the last line of dialogue is reached.
Even the play's cast knows full well it's like nothing any of them has ever been part of.
"I've been in plays that cross geopolitical lines, and certainly in plays that cross ethnic and racial lines," Beecher said. "But never in a play that crosses actual time lines, or includes different times all in the same moment."
'Course 86B in the Catalogue'
When • April 11-May 6. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, April 11 and 12, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; 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.