Review: Plan-B’s ‘Pilot Program’ is thought-provoking and haunting

(Steve Griffin  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)    Susanna Florence Risser, April Fossen and Mark Fossen rehearse a scene from Plan B’s new play, (Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Susanna Florence Risser, April Fossen and Mark Fossen rehearse a scene from Plan B’s new play, "Pilot Program," about what would happen if a contemporary Mormon couple were called to practice polygamy, at The Rose Theatre in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, March 31, 2015.
Review • Play about polygamy is haunting and thought-provoking.

More than a century after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice, polygamy keeps reappearing as a subject of discussion and controversy. The popularity of television shows like “Sister Wives” and “Big Love” attest to an enduring fascination. People are simultaneously intrigued and appalled: How does it work? Can it work? What would it take to make it work in today’s society?

The characters in Melissa Leilani Larson’s “Pilot Program,” making its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre Company, wrestle with these questions and more: What are the limits of faith? What is the difference between accepting something philosophically and living its reality day to day?

Larson hypothesizes a situation where a Mormon couple, Abby (April Fossen) and Jacob (Mark Fossen), are called by the church to practice polygamy, an idea Abby calls “historic and insane.” They initially reject the proposal, but then Abby reconsiders, based on “a blossom of warmth, a burst of faith.”

She possesses a more practical motivation: She has had three miscarriages. “God wants you to be a father,” she tells Jacob. “Maybe I’m the wrong wife.” She also thinks she has the perfect candidate for the other wife — her former university student Heather (Susanna Florence Risser), “a kindred spirit.”

Jacob and Heather oppose the idea. Jacob says, “I didn’t sign on to have children with anyone else,” and when they approach Heather, she reacts, “It’s not possible. You think I’m that desperate, that lonely?”

Why they ultimately accept Abby’s plan is one of the conundrums of Larson’s play. Abby is the narrator, so we can get into her head, but Jacob and Heather never reveal why they are suddenly willing to radically remake their lives. The audience is asked to take a great deal on faith, especially because these are three very bright, articulate people; they should grapple with the consequences longer before making their choices.

How Larson feels about these choices is also left unresolved. There are both positive and negative results. Yet “Pilot Program” is definitely thought-provoking, the kind of play you keep revisiting after you leave the theater.

Certainly a lot of the reason is the strength of this production. The intelligent, empathetic performances of the three actors and Jerry Rapier’s intuitive direction more than compensate for the limitations in Larson’s script. April and Mark Fossen translate their overt and nuanced actions and reactions as a married couple into compassionately complete portraits of Abby and Jacob. Their body language captures the shifting comfort and discomfort in the emotional ebb and flow of their relationship. April’s open-outspoken Abby is an effective contrast to Mark’s engaging, eager-to-please Jacob. Risser’s self-possessed Heather reveals flashes of playful, little-girl vulnerability.

Rapier uses pauses and movement to orchestrate shifts in the characters’ relationships. Where someone is standing or sitting dramatically illustrates how that person is feeling. Awkward moments become palpable.

Randy Rasmussen’s living-room set is deceptively unassuming and comfortable, and Jesse Portillo’s lighting modulates from bright to mute to reflect shifts in emotion and tension. Cheryl Cluff’s sharp sound of a door opening and closing acquires symbolic weight as the characters fight for closeness and separation. Phillip Lowe’s fashionable costumes are keyed to character.

Larson’s play poses intriguing questions about faith and choice. Its “triptych of plural love and uncertainty” is imperfect but haunting.

‘Pilot Program’

P Strong performances and intuitive direction fill in the unfinished corners of Melissa Leilani Larson’s “Pilot Program.”

When • Reviewed Thursday; plays Sundays at 2 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., through April 19

Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $20, $10 for students; 801-355-ARTS or www.arttix.org for tickets; www.planbtheatre.org for information

Running time • 80 minutes (no intermission)