A meaty look at modern life

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Even the title of the play receiving its world premiere in Salt Lake City this week is a bit, well, offbeat. Which is why the postcard announcing Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen's "Miasma" includes a dictionary definition.

Miasma (mi az' me, n. 1. noxious exhalations from putrescent organic matter; 2. a dangerous, foreboding, or deathlike atmosphere.

Then there's a summary of the play's plot, an alternative definition not found in any dictionary: A dissection of family, racial and sexual politics set against the backdrop of the beef industry.

The backstory of how Samuelsen, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, developed his play with ripped-from-the-headlines themes about a rancher-turned-beef producer and his crew of immigrant laborers makes his inspirations seem oddly prescient.

Samuelsen drew the title of "The Butcher, the Beggar and the Bedtime Buddy" at Plan-B Theatre's 2004 "Slam," the company's first 24-hour playwriting event. As dictated by "Slam" rules, Samuelsen spun the title he considered "uncongenial" into a play overnight. His 10-minute short was influenced by Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's exposé of feedlots and slaughterhouses.

Later that year, as the playwright developed the work into a full-length play, a second Schlosser book, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, sparked him to conceive a fourth character, Jorge, a gay Mexican national who is the meat company's foreman. Samuelsen finished the play some two years before a series of rallies and protests launched the issue of immigration reform to the top of America's political agenda.

"Miasma" is set in the fictional town of Lakota, Neb., but its themes are familiar stories unfolding across the contemporary West. Focusing on three visits back home by Claire to see her father, Ben, and her childhood friend, Jorge, the play considers the bankruptcy of family ranches and how immigrant labor provides muscle for corporate agriculture.

Each visit allows the characters to hear updates about the rest of the family, while explaining their own lives. As Claire says of her father: "He doesn't call himself a rancher anymore. He calls himself a beef producer." Structurally, "Miasma's" characters tell stories that jump backward and forward in time, often stepping out of a scene to directly address the audience, which is intended to implicate theatergoers in the story.

"The play exists, in part, because I'm quite terrified as an American and a liberal about the power corporations have over our lives," Samuelsen said in a phone interview between rehearsals for a BYU production of the dramedy "The Foreigner." "Not only where we work, but what we eat and what we breathe, because the air stinks and the water isn't drinkable. I'm also trying to suggest that this corporate power destroys families. I'm enough of a Mormon to think that families really are the heart of society."

"Miasma's" preoccupations are serious, but Samuelsen approaches the story with humor and a gentle touch, say members of the cast and crew. "When I first read information about the play it sounded absolutely crazy, a play about the beef industry, homosexuality and immigration," says April Fossen, who plays Claire, a daughter caught between her father's values and the rest of her family. "It's not an unapproachable political play. What's changed for me in the course of working on the play is realizing how much of it is about family dynamics and relationships."

Director Adrianne Moore, an assistant professor of theater at Utah State University, says the cast feels an additional obligation in creating the first production of a living playwright's work. After all, nobody's made the play work yet.

"There's an incredible sense of responsibility that I feel toward Eric, who wrote the play, who put his heart and soul into it, and the way an audience sees it is through this production," Moore says. "I would like Noel Coward to feel happy with the work, too, but it's not uppermost in my mind."

Samuelsen developed his love of theater at a young age, growing up in Indiana, the son of opera singer Roy Samuelsen. As a boy, he earned walk-on roles in his father's productions and found the backstage atmosphere, the costumes and makeup intoxicating.

He earned a doctorate in theater history and dramatic literature from Indiana University and then in 1992 returned to BYU, where he had earned his undergraduate degree, to join the theater department. He's had 19 plays produced regionally and nationally, yet his work isn't well-known in Salt Lake City. He's the only playwright to have won three Best Play awards from the Association for Mormon Letters (for "Accommodations," "Gadianton" and "The Way We're Wired"), a competition he's now ineligible to enter.

Samuelsen draws upon the philosophy of the experimental German dramatist Bertolt Brecht to explain his approach to playwriting. "Brecht says that theater, above all else, needs to entertain," the playwright says. "I've always believed that. Anytime the audience is engaged emotionally, they're being entertained. If that can be tied to ideas, all the better."


Beefy production at Plan-B

Plan-B Theatre Company's "Miasma" opens Friday and plays Thursdays to Saturdays through Sept. 24 at the Studio Theatre of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Curtain is 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinee performances on Sundays. Tickets are $15 ($10 students), available by calling 801-355-ARTS or visiting http://www.planbtheatrecopany.org.