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(Courtesy photo) The actors in Utah playwright Aden Ross' "Rings": David Galván, Steve Williams, Tracie Merrill, April Fossen, Toni Byrd, Deena Marie Manzanares, Yoah Guerrero and Iris Salazar.
Salt Lake City theater company seeks dramatic justice in ‘Rings’
Stage » Utah play focuses on the women at the center of a real-life court case about racism and torture.
First Published Jun 03 2014 02:30 pm • Last Updated Jun 06 2014 03:17 pm

A newspaper headline screamed out to Utah playwright Aden Ross as she was passing through the small Nevada town of Winnemucca: "Two women arraigned for torturing maids."

Reading the article didn’t add any layers of nuance to an ugly story of class inequality and racism. The case centered on two affluent white women who accused their Hispanic maids of stealing a wedding ring. When the maids denied stealing, their employers claimed their own justice by kidnapping the maids, taking them to a deserted area and threatening them, employing a toy gun and handcuffs.

At a glance

The ringing questions of ‘Rings’

A premiere of Utah playwright Aden Ross’s play based on a legal case, which raises questions about the shifting nature of evidence.

When » Thursday-Saturday, June 5-21, 7:30 p.m.

Where » Grand Theatre, 1575 South State St., Salt Lake Community College South City campus, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $10-$24, at 801-957-3322; the-grand.org

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Ross later went to Reno to research the story, where she spent eight hours frantically taking notes from the files before the legal case had even made it through to the sentencing phase. Among all the legal documents, she was especially intrigued to read the confession of one of the employers.

That real-life legal case inspired Ross to write "Rings," a legal drama in which shifting layers of evidence begin to spill out far beyond the courtroom walls. The play centers around Judge Madeleine Crowder (Tracie Merrill), who hears the case of best friends Ruby Kellpack (Deena Marie Manzanares) and Karen Glass (April Fossen), who have accused Vera Martinez (Iris Salazar) and Concepcion Flores (Yoah Guerrero) of theft.

In 1993, an earlier draft of "Rings" received readings in Portland and at Cedar City’s Utah Shakespeare Festival, and then was produced at Park City’s Egyptian Theatre. At the invitation of Grand Theatre artistic director Richard Scott, Ross revised "Rings," changing the story’s focus to more deeply develop the character of the judge.

"I trust the audience," Ross says. "There are lots of different kinds of evidence, and a lot of it is contradictory. I’ve always been intrigued with the nature of reality and what is indefinable."

The tightly structured play, now set in New Mexico, revolves around three metaphorical sets of sisters and one set of literal sisters. As Mady explains to her best friend, K.C., her life has begun to resemble a fugue, with different voices repeating the same melody. "What Mady is understanding is that her personal story is very much the same story she is judging in the courtroom," Ross says. "She has to learn to understand that and come to take responsibility for it."

With "Rings," the Grand Theatre is kickstarting its Backstage series, where both the audience and the action are situated on the venue’s massive stage to create a sort of black box theater, says Scott, who is directing the play. That intimate setup is designed to invite the audience into the story, as if they were sitting in Judge Crowder’s courtroom or eavesdropping on her personal conversations as she retreats to her living room after hours.

"Rings" is also part of Grand Theatre’s ongoing effort to connect with ethnic communities. The play’s questioning of overt and covert racism and class issues between white and brown people is especially relevant as the company is based on Salt Lake Community College’s South City campus, where the population of Hispanic students is burgeoning.

"From an actor’s perspective, it’s pretty much a dream role, a nice challenge of a strong woman who is very conflicted by her past and also her conviction, what she sees as her moral drive and her purpose," says Tracie Merrill of her character. "Out of her entire career, this is the case that really starts to unravel the facade that she’s been able to maintain."

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