When the March Hare snaps, "You should say what you mean," to Alice at the mad tea party in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," she quickly replies," I mean what I say that's the same thing, you know." Clever as that comeback is, it is rarely true.
This misperception, however, seems to be shared by most of the characters in Julie Jensen's intriguing "Cheat," currently being staged by Pygmalion Productions. Their conversations seem direct, but it's what they don't or can't say that shapes their lives and acquires increasing weight as this provocative play develops. As Roxy says to her husband, D-Dubb, "There's no need to talk if there's nothing to say."
The premise of "Cheat" is deceptively simple. Three women who have known each other most of their lives work together at an aircraft repair plant in Utah during the waning days of World War II. Because of opportunities provided by the war, women's lives perch on the cusp of change. As Edie says,"This is the end of an era. It's a whole new world from here on out." But choices are still limited, especially in their small town with its traditional values.
It's the layers that Jensen embeds beneath the surface that make "Cheat" interesting. The three women sit in different spots on the spectrum of possibility. At one end, Edie (Madeline Weinberger) opts for family with a bunch of children. At the other, Roxy (Cassandra Stokes-Wylie), who is locked into a loveless marriage, wants to keep working "so I can feel like somebody. I want to feel like I fit somewhere."
She also wants to pursue her relationship with Reva (Tracie Merrill), whom she has loved for years. But Reva doesn't feel she can make that choice. "I have a life in that town," she tells Roxy. "Everything I know is there." Another complicating factor is Roxy's marriage to D-Dubb (Lane Richins), who loves her but doesn't have a clue about who she is and expects her to conform to his image of wife and mother.
Thanks to the low-key, empathetic performances of its ensemble cast and Fran Pruyn's sensitive, open-ended direction, "Cheat" evolves a natural, lifelike rhythm. Jensen avoids the temptation to share all the characters' secrets, and Stokes-Wylie and Merrill are adept at suggesting things that never get stated. Roxy's buoyancy and desire to live on her terms deftly offsets Reva's world-weary acceptance of her life's realities. Weinberger's gossipy, brash Edie is an effective contrast to both of them. As D-Dubb, Richins conveys the constant frustration of a man who continually says the wrong thing at the wrong time.
John Wayne Cook's set captures the duality of the women's world. The left, work side with its girders and warehouse backdrop is institutional and barebones, while Roxy and D-Dubb's front room on the right with its ironing board and well-worn furniture is conventional and homey. Mikal Troy Klee's sound design blends radio reports of the war with muted factory noises and music from the era, and Michael Nielsen's costumes and hairstyles carry us back to the 1940s.
Jensen's play paints an indelible portrait of women's lives in a particular time and place, but its implications go beyond that. Relationships can only thrive where there is honesty in a world that allows that to happen.
Empathetic, nuanced performances unearth the complex questions beneath the surface of Julie Jensen's thought-provoking "Cheat."
When • Reviewed Friday, Feb. 22; run continues Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Mar. 9 with an extra matinee on Saturday, Mar. 9 at 3 p.m.
Where • Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 West Broadway, Salt Lake City.
Running time • Running time: 95 minutes (no intermission)