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Plan B production: Rendezvous with mystery and loss

Published March 9, 2008 12:00 am

Utah playwright explores the story of the enigmatic Everett Ruess in part as one family's struggle with finding closure in wake of his disappearance
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In the more than 70 years since Everett Ruess disappeared into the remote fringes of southern Utah's redrock country, the artist-poet has become the patron saint of wilderness adventurers and desert rats. A line from one of the 20-year-old's last letters to his family - "I am drunk with the fiery elixir of beauty" - sparks comparisons with Henry David Thoreau and other influential nature writers.

One attraction of his story is its enduring mystery: Was his November 1934 disappearance as elemental as running into bad weather or running out of food? Or was he murdered for his gear?

Another draw is the larger, cultural narrative. Whatever happened, this is what we know: Ruess has been transformed into a cultural icon because he got - and stayed - lost.

"He's become an archetypal figure of canyonland country," says bookseller Ken Sanders, who has been obsessed with the Ruess story for more than 30 years. "He walked off from Escalante into the howling wilderness, and that strikes a chord with every generation." Sanders quotes the ending of a 1983 sonnet Edward Abbey wrote to Ruess: That blessing which you hunted, hunted too. What you were seeking, this is what found you.

Ruess' words, popularized through the publication of his journals, reveal a young man who followed his dream "to live more intensely and richly." Now that passion will be brought to the stage in Utah playwright Debora Threedy's "The End of the Horizon," a world-premiere production mounted by Plan-B Theatre.

"It's amazing the passion that Everett Ruess incites in people," says Jerry Rapier, Plan-B's producing director. "He's become the West. He is the desert. He is the freedom to explore the landscape."

Call of the wild

Utah wilderness lovers have seemingly always known about Ruess, as the story of his disappearance was handed down on river trips and around campfires. "He was one of the first who went to the Southwestern desert just to be there," Threedy says.

Wallace Stegner recounted his story in the 1942 nonfiction classic Mormon Country. Then came W.L. Rusho's book A Vagabond for Beauty, published in 1983 and still a steady seller. Two recent documentaries have also kept the story alive: Diane Orr's "Lost Forever: Everett Ruess" and Dyanne Taylor's "Vanished."

One theme in "Horizon" concerns the friction between making a living and the call of the natural world. It's that strand of Ruess' story that is most often compared to the contemporary journey of Chris McCandless, whose fatal Alaskan adventure was explored in Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild and Sean Penn's 2007 film adaptation. "Everett becomes a stand-in for insert-the-name-of-your-person-struggling-with-a-career-choice-here," Rapier says.

On one level, Threedy's play owes a debt to Orr's film because it inspired her to write a play about the mystery, combining facts culled from Ruess' journals and letters with fictionalized scenes. But the play came to explore a more universal story, that of one family's loss. "This play is about coming to a resolution with the unknown," director Kay Shean says. "The unknown is very difficult for humans. We want to know. We want to know right now."

In one of many unusual connections that cast and crew claim with this story, Shean found herself drawing upon the emotional material of her own life. Specifically, she recalled a frightening time seven years ago when her stepson, Matt, was missing in Nigeria.

For nearly two years, she and her husband didn't hear from him and had reason to fear for his safety. Her family's story ended happily, with a "Hi, Mom. I'm at the airport in New Jersey" phone call, but that time of not knowing helped the director come to a deeper understanding of the heartbreak in the Ruess family story.

Mother figure

It's uncommon for a Utah-based actor to have the opportunity to create a character for the first time, and also rare to be able to question the playwright during rehearsals. "At this point in time, they know each of the characters better than I did," Threedy says.

More unusual still is that the playwright isn't just watching the production of her first full-length play take shape, but is actively involved. She's acting the role of Stella, Ruess' mother, a photographer and artist who taught her younger son the art of making block prints. "Debora is doing a very difficult thing, in being able to separate herself from her baby," says Shean, which is why the director originally balked at the idea of casting the playwright.

Threedy herself had to be talked into auditioning, but from her first line reading she revealed an uncanny understanding of the character. As the director says: "She had this fire in her."

The playwright, a Chicago native, studied theater as an undergraduate before attending law school. In the 1980s, she moved to Salt Lake City to teach at the University of Utah, acting on various local stages and writing short plays on the side. She describes "Horizon" as "a child of my mind and spirit," remembering how it felt to write the play in one 48-hour rush in the summer of 2000. "Horizon" received additional shaping through a 2006 staged reading at the Utah Shakespearean Festival's New American Playwrights Project.

As an actor, Threedy found new colors in Stella's character that she wasn't aware of when she was writing the play. Onstage, she also hears expressions of her own beliefs as channeled through other characters. "I gave pieces of myself to everybody," Threedy says, describing a speech by Ruess' father, Christopher, about how the soul might endure after death. "To me, when you love someone, that love doesn't end when the person leaves."

Art meets reality

Playing an icon like Everett Ruess requires stepping aside from the legend, says actor David Fetzer, who at 25 is just five years older than Ruess was when he disappeared.

He shares his character's desire for solitude, "and maybe a tendency to alienate ourselves from our friends because of our passion," the actor says, describing his own artistic obsessions, which include music, theater, filmmaking and, most recently, beer making.

"My future after this play is very much in the air," Fetzer says. "That's what I've come to admire about Everett. He really knew what he wanted to do and he did it, unapologetically."

That's why, in another unusual confluence of local story and local legend, Fetzer stood reverently observing the brush strokes in four of Ruess' recently discovered landscape paintings. On a recent morning, the cast and crew of "Horizon" gathered at the U. archives to examine the debris of the Ruess family's lives.

Waldo Ruess, Everett's older brother, who died last year at age 98, donated the collection, more than 78 boxes of family papers, photographs, journals and art. It's a rare gathering of material, says archivist Elizabeth Rogers, who spent a year organizing the collection. "I have to admit, I was obsessed," she says. "I read almost everything. This is really one of a kind. And it's not just Everett. This family was the 20th century."

On this morning, cast members made discoveries as they flipped through photographs and read the handwriting of their characters.

Shean, who returned to her native Utah in 1997 after living most of her adult life in Los Angeles, found records that her uncle in Richfield had helped with a southern Utah search party looking for Ruess.

"Do you know what happened to you in the end?" Rogers, the curator, asked actor Jason Bowcutt, who portrays a bounty hunter. "You were [hanged]."

Threedy, in her dual roles of author and actor, was visibly moved to tears at discovering an intersection of emotional truth and reality. When writing "The End of the Horizon," she had imagined a scene of closure where Stella journeys to southern Utah to camp at Davis Gulch. That's the last place where Ruess was known to leave his mark, the mysterious inscription "Nemo 1934."

"I have Stella sleeping at Davis Gulch," the writer said, triumphantly, looking up from her character's journals, "and she actually did."

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* ELLEN FAGG can be contacted at ellenf@sltrib.com or 801-257-8621. Send comments to livingeditor@sltrib.com.