According to St. John’s Gospel, when Christ told Pilate that he had come to testify to the truth, Pilate retorted, “Truth! What does that mean?”
Local playwright Aden Ross’ “Rings,” debuting at the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City, provocatively addresses that question in a contemporary context.
The play’s central character, Mady Crowder (Tracie Merrill), is a judge in a bizarre New Mexico case based on a real incident. The facts of what occurred are less an issue than the motivations behind them and what they imply about the people involved. Crowder must “piece together” the different versions of the story to determine what “really happened” and why.
The case involves four women: two Anglo best friends, Ruby (Deena Marie Manzanares) and Karen (April Fossen), and the Mexican sisters, Vera (Iris Salazar) and Concepción (Yoah Guerrero), who work as maids for Ruby. When an expensive ring goes missing, Ruby and Karen take revenge by kidnapping and intimidating the maids and stealing Vera’s wedding ring. The Anglo women are privileged and wealthy; the Mexican sisters are their opposites. In an interesting twist on expectations, the Anglo women are defended by a Latino lawyer (Dave Galván), while the prosecutor representing the Mexican sisters (Stephen Williams) is white.
As the trial plays out in the courtroom, some well-positioned flashbacks reveal the dynamic of what happened. But what gives “Rings” its depth is Ross’ counterpointing of the trial scenes against quieter, personal ones between Mady and her longtime friend K.C. (Toni Byrd), a theater director working on a production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
“Once in the courtroom, our lives aren’t that different,” K.C. points out to Mady. “Every day the plot gets thicker and the characters more complex.”
The parallels linking “Merchant” and the trial become more clear in the defense lawyer’s summation, when he states: “There’s a time for revenge to give way to forgiveness, justice to give way to mercy.”
He describes the case as a chain of events like the rings that emanate from a stone thrown into water, which echoes discomforting truths about their past lives that emerge during Mady and K.C.’s conversations. As Mady asks, “What evidence do you ignore to maintain what you want to be true?”
The Grand’s production is consistently tension-filled and engrossing thanks to Richard Scott’s tight, economical direction and the cast’s straightforward, but insightful performances. As the Mexican sisters, Guerrero and Salazar passionately fight to have a voice in a society that often renders them silent. The surface arrogance of Manzanares’ Ruby is underlain by desperation and insecurity, and Fossen’s Karen, a woman who has lost almost everything, hopelessly clings to the one thing she has left — her loyalty to her friend. Williams’ prosecutor is unwavering and articulate, but Galván lacks the forcefulness and experience to make the defense lawyer a challenging adversary.
Byrd’s K.C. is a funny, opinionated and philosophical contrast to Merrill’s searching and speculating Mady. Merrill does especially well balancing Mady’s emotionless, objective exterior against the guilt and betrayal seething inside.
The Grand’s intimate black-box format that seats the audience on the stage serves this play with its unfolding secrets exceptionally well. The theater should think seriously about using this approach with more productions to avoid the cavernous feel of that giant auditorium. Ethan Olsen’s razor-sharp lighting shifts and Joe Killian’s original music and dramatic sound design add shape and theatricality to the production.
At one point, Mady asks, “How long can you live a lie?” “Rings” poses intriguing questions about guilt and innocence, forgiveness and retaliation, justice and mercy and the ways they interact to shape our lives and the lives of those around us.
P The Grand Theatre gives Aden Ross’ “Rings” a satisfying, soul-searching production.
When • Reviewed Thursday; plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through June 21.
Where • Grand Theatre on the South High campus of Salt Lake Community College, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City
Running time • 90 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets • $10 to $24 with discounts for students, seniors and groups. Call 801-957-3322 or visit www.the-grand.org for tickets and information.