How bad timing turned Pioneer Theatre’s new play into a COVID-19 metaphor

After two years, Pioneer Theatre Company will have the world premiere of “The Messenger.”

(Pioneer Theatre Company) The main cast of Pioneer Theatre Company's production of Jeff Talbott's "The Messenger," from left: Meredith Holzman, Barzin Akhavan, Ora Jones and Mark H. Dold. The play, adapting the Henrik Ibsen classic "An Enemy of the People," runs Jan. 14-29, 2022.

Jeff Talbott wasn’t intending to write a metaphor for the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as his play “The Messenger” was being developed, it worked out that way.

“We can talk a lot about how this relates to the pandemic, but really to me, [it] has nothing to do with why I wrote the play,” Talbott told The Salt Lake Tribune. “All of the stuff in the play, from a writing standpoint, that has to do with disease and the spread of disease, has not changed since the first draft of the play.”

“The Messenger” — which will have its world premiere run Jan. 14-29 at Pioneer Theatre Company — tells the story of Therese Stockman (played by Ora Jones), a doctor who discovers that something that sustains her small town’s economy is also making its people sick. That discovery prompts a conflict between Dr. Stockman, her brother Peter (Mark H. Dold), who’s the mayor, and newspaper editor Kristine Hovstad (Meredith Holzman).

If that synopsis sounds familiar to theater buffs or literature majors, that’s by design. “The Messenger” is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People.”

Talbott and his collaborator, director Wes Grantom, proposed the adaptation to PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg in 2019. They ran the play through PTC’s Play-by-Play workshop series, with public read-throughs scheduled for Friday and Saturday, March 13 and 14, 2020.

That was the week that COVID-19 effectively shut down the world.

(Pioneer Theatre Company) Dr. Theresa Stockman (Ora Jones, at right) tells her brother, Peter (Mark H. Dold) — who's also the mayor of their town — about a health danger that could affect the town's economy, in Pioneer Theatre Company's production of Jeff Talbott's play "The Messenger." The play, adapting the Henrik Ibsen classic "An Enemy of the People," runs Jan. 14-29, 2022.

For Grantom, it was two days before the first read-through, on March 11, that things started to become “very real and scary.” That night, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, before an away game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The game was canceled, and much of the NBA season and everything else quickly followed.

“Sometimes when these public health crises happen, they feel far away,” Grantom said. “That week, especially, it felt very immediate.”

The Friday read-through went on as scheduled. Saturday’s was canceled, and Talbott and Grantom flew home to New York — where Broadway theaters also were shutting down.

Now, nearly two years later, Talbott and Grantom are able to put “The Messenger” onstage. Again, the virus is intruding, as the surge of cases prompted by the omicron variant is making case counts spike and taxing health care workers to the limit.

Grantom said the play, with its roots in 19th century theater, is proof that such moments recur throughout history.

“Human beings have been dealing with these types of things for hundreds of years,” Grantom said. “I think you take a little bit of comfort in that we do find ways to overcome the crises, and we will again.”

(Pioneer Theatre Company) Newspaper editor Kristine Hovstad (Meredith Holzman, left) talks to her employee, Henrik Abelman (Barzin Akhavan), in a scene from Pioneer Theatre Company's production of Jeff Talbott's "The Messenger." The play, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's classic "An Enemy of the People," runs Jan. 14-29, 2022.

The play, Talbott and Grantom said, is about more than the current moment. The production centers on society’s relationship with the press, the art of conversation and why we do — or don’t — talk to each other.

“We’re trying to keep this sort of 1882 Ibsen lens on things, so that we don’t blind ourselves with too much reality. Or blind the audience,” Grantom said.

At the heart of “The Messenger,” Talbott said, is the notion that creativity can facilitate conversation.

“The thing that makes me sit down at the keyboard to write something is because I have questions that I don’t know the answers to,” Talbott said. “I hope if I’ve written something successfully enough, and crafted it enough, that people walk away with some of the same questions I have. I don’t feel like my job is to answer the question, but I do feel my job is to frame the question in an articulate enough manner, that afterwards other people might be engaged in the conversation with me of ‘How do we talk about that question?’”

Grantom added that “The Messenger” is a bright reminder of the power of conversation, especially when we’ve become accustomed to talking at each other rather than with each other.

“If we only hold to one point of view, and we’re only willing to listen to one point of view — the point of view that we believe — then we’re not talking to each other,” Grantom said. “And if we continue to do that, we won’t be able to have a conversation at all.”

Both men said they feel lucky to be back in a theater, going through rehearsals and rediscovering the simple joys of working with a cast and crew. And they are excited to share that with an audience, safely.

“We talk a lot about catharsis in the theater,” Talbott said. “I feel like that’s happening in audiences in a very different way. Because the first catharsis is just being with other human beings experiencing something live again.”

“Sometimes I get a little self-conscious about making a play that feels very much about this current pandemic and that we’re somehow capitalizing on it or something,” Grantom said. “This conversation is bigger, and about how people communicate with each other, how people engage with the press, people’s distrust of one another and how that has been going on for much longer than this pandemic and will continue to go on and will only start to get easier or better once we’re talking to each other.”

(Pioneer Theatre Company) | From left to right, the cast and creators of "The Messenger": Turna Mete, Ora Jones, Grayson DeJesus, director Wes Grantom, Meredith Holzman, Barzin Akhavan, playwright Jeff Talbott, and Mark H. Dold.

Hearing ‘The Messenger’

Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “The Messenger,” a play by Jeff Talbott, adapting Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People.”

Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City, on the University of Utah campus.

Showtimes • Mondays through Thursdays, 7 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.; no performances Sunday.

Tickets • Available online at pioneertheatre.org.