Utah Arts Review » Blog Archive » Pioneer Theater premiere explores timely public health theme in “The Messenger”

Ora Jones as Dr. Therese Stockman and Turna Mete as Petra in Jeff Talbott’s World Premiere The messenger at the Pioneer Theater Company. Photo: CTP

A doctor with a terrible warning about a threat to public health. A politician who warns that the doctor’s recommendations could trigger economic disaster. An editor driven by an agenda of her own.

If the central characters of The messenger-Jeff Talbott’s one-act play, which had its world premiere at the Pioneer Theater Company on Friday night, looks like it’s been plucked from the proverbial headlines, maybe that’s because it is. And whether the specific threat comes from a novel coronavirus or another health hazard, the issues — individual rights versus the common good, public health versus people’s livelihoods, the whistleblower’s dilemma — are the same. . So does the role of the news media in these conflicts.

Talbot wrote: The messenger in collaboration with director Wes Grantom just before the dawn of the current pandemic – indeed, his March 2020 reading in Pioneer’s Play-By-Play series was cut short when the world abruptly shut down.

The story has become even more relevant in the meantime. Through minimal speech and a good deal of character development, Talbott manages to inspire audience members to recognize the complexities of our current reality and grapple with the questions he poses (but refuses to answer).

The piece is Talbott’s riff on Henrik Ibsen An enemy of the people, with a similar plot revolving around the political fallout of a doctor’s warning about a contaminated water supply.

Like that classic drama, it’s set in rural Norway in 1882, though the elegant costumes and Yoon Bae-designed set are the only elements that anchor it to the 19th century. Well, maybe not the only things: a stone thrown through a window late in the room fulfills the role that social media comments play these days.

Dr. Therese Stockman is the moral center of the drama. A laboratory in the big city has just confirmed Therese’s suspicions that the water from the mineral baths, the city’s main industry, is toxic. There is a solution, though it involves short-term economic sacrifices that Stockman knows will irritate his brother, Mayor Peter Stockman. She confides in Kristine Hovstad, the titular newspaper’s editor and longtime friend. (In another nod to a bygone era, this small town has more than one newspaper, though Peter’s loyalty to rival publication The Constitution because “they report it the way I want to hear it” has earned knowing laughs from the Friday audience.)

Ora Jones’ beautifully nuanced portrayal of Therese shows us a conflicted hero who realizes too late that the flip side of his idealism is naivety. We see her certainty and composure erode until she desperately pleads for her community to come together ‘in the middle of the room’ and finally bursts out in frustration and rage before pulling herself together and resolving herself. to continue his fight.

Mark H. Dold, as the pragmatic Peter, has crackling chemistry with Jones. The siblings’ Sorkinesque banter in the opening scene is so uplifting it’s startling when Therese later reveals that Peter’s constant interruptions and cross talk make her feel invisible. Peter’s surprise at his sister’s resentment also seems genuine. The moment is a reminder of the trap of talking to each other.

Meredith Holzman’s Kristine is morally troubled, hiding her agenda in friendly concern and gleefully dismissing repercussions and responsibility with a quip: “We are the messenger, not the message. It’s to the actor’s credit that the audience is as surprised as Therese and Peter are when Kristine reveals her power game, a game that, while unpleasant, just might save the town.

Turna Mete plays Therese’s daughter, Petra, with composure and courage as the young woman confronts her own ethical dilemma without hesitation. Grayson DeJesus is so affable as Petra’s boyfriend, Einar Billing, that he’s underwhelming when he dwells on his personal ambition.

Barzin Akhavan is the unfortunate Henrik Abelman, who poignantly reminds us that whether the dilemma is environmental or economic, it is the people at the bottom who pay the most.

That message is expressed even more starkly by Alexis Grace Thomsen, the leader of a handful of modernly-dressed characters who crash into the room’s fourth wall: first place.”

The messenger until January 29. pioneertheatre.org.

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