“Why are you my friend?” Brandie asks Kell in “Bar & Kell,” the first of Eric Samuelsen’s three plays in Plan-B Theatre Company’s world-premiere production of “3,” now at the Rose Wagner.
Kell isn’t sure how to respond. She and Bar have set out to transform Brandie’s life as their do-good neighborhood project. She stammers, “Because I want things to be better for you than they are.”
It’s partly true, but what Kell really wonders is, “Was I helping her or just trying to feel better about me?”
Mixed motivations and living up to expectations — our own and others — are just two of the themes “3” explores. This symmetrical trio of plays — three plays, each about the relationships linking three women, and all portrayed by the same three actresses — contains some of Samuelsen’s best writing.
We may be tempted to dismiss or, even worse, judge some of the characters, but he never does. Through his compassionate insights — and the compelling performances of Stephanie Howell, Teresa Sanderson and Christy Summerhays — they take on individual lives of their own.
The characters in “3” are all Mormon but the stories could be about any women. Except for the religious overlay, which sometimes deepens their dilemmas, they struggle with universal questions: How do you be a friend? Can you find the courage to stand up for your convictions? What’s acceptable in a marriage? As Janeal in “Community Standards” realizes, “We don’t all get to be equal.”
One thing that makes “3” work is Samuelsen’s double perspective. Like the subtitles in a Woody Allen movie, the women talk to the audience as well as each other, enabling us to see them from the inside and outside simultaneously.
The plays move emotionally from lightest to deepest. In “Bar & Kell,” the title characters try to help new neighbor Brandie to a better life . . . their way. Their intentions are good; whether the results are is left for us to decide.
“Community Standards” explores the reactions of three members of a jury at the trial of a video-store owner who rents questionable movies. Are they pornographic, and how do you define community standards? One of the production’s funniest moments is watching the expressions on the women’s faces as they view scenes from the films. More seriously, what do the images in these films reveal about the way men and see and treat women?
In “Duets,” Samuelsen counterpoints Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory” against the story line. Mark and Sondra sing beautifully together and seem to have the perfect marriage, but do they? How far can love go to change another person?
Howell, Sanderson, and Summerhays put on and take off their characters as easily as they change articles of Philip Lowe’s individualizing costumes. The three women are completely in sync, and Cheryl Ann Cluff’s direction hooks unerringly into their rhythms, moving quickly through the funnier moments and highlighting the more meaningful ones. Randy Rasmussen’s institutional, gridlike set is intriguing; is it a food storage locker?
In “3,” Samuelsen strikes a nice balance between identifying Mormon cultural challenges and empathizing with the women who are coping with them. And the three actresses bring their stories indelibly to life.
Plan B’s “3”
Samuelsen’s portrait of the lives of contemporary Mormon women may be the best play in Plan-B’s “Season of Eric.”
When • Reviewed on March 27; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. through April 6.
Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 West Broadway, Salt Lake City.
Running time • 90 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets • $20, $10 for students; 355-ARTS or www.arttix.org; visit www.planbtheatre.org for more information.