New Utah play — in which sisters play chicken on train tracks — explores power of shifting family relationships

Stage • Utah playwright’s surreal work about sisters — playing chicken on train tracks — finds power in percussive sounds.

| Courtesy Actors Nickie Nixon, Merry Magee, Shawn Saunders and Robert Scott Smith in Morag Shepherd's new play, "How Long Can You Stand on the TRain Tracks: A Game for Two Sisters." The show is receiving a premiere production by Sackerson and Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory at the University of Utah's Babcock Theatre.

A pair of sisters are playing a game of chicken on train tracks. That's a simple description for the backdrop of Utah playwright Morag Shepherd's surreal play "How Long Can You Stand on the Train Tracks: A Game for Two Sisters."

"A train and a question. It's coming near, nearer: It's almost here, it's almost here — it was never there," is how promoters describe the play. "An echo of love. Love that tastes like the ocean, and steel, and glass in your eyes."

Shepherd's play is receiving a premiere production in a collaboration between two Salt Lake City theater companies, Sackerson and Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory. The show plays at the University of Utah's Babcock Theatre.

The playwright says the work was inspired by her considerations of family dynamics, including close relationships between sisters. In addition, she was exploring what happens when grown children realize what they thought they knew about a parent, whom they were once close to, has changed. Or perhaps their impressions weren't ever entirely accurate.

The action of the play was sparked by the childhood games Shepherd played with her brother around train tracks in the village of Halkirk, Scotland, where she grew up.

Director Andra Harbold calls the story about two sisters' complicated, disjunctive relationship "haunted and fiercely playful." Rather then a literal plot, "language, theme and spectacle are at the heart of Shepherd's work," she says.

"Train Tracks" explores questions of identity, while wrangling the wild hope of whether people are capable of loving others while allowing them to change. "Or maybe the more accurate question is whether we can love with a capacity to keep reseeing the people we love, not through the lens of our expectations, but truly in that moment," Harbold says.

Shepherd is resident playwright at Sackerson, which has produced her plays "Burn," "The Worst Thing I've Ever Done," "Before the Beep" and "Poppy's in the Sand," which premiered at the inaugural Great Salt Fringe Festival. Another play, "Not One Drop," was produced this year at Plan-B Theatre Company, and Shepherd's monologues were included in the company's June readings of "(in)divisible."

The title might be the most literal element of the story, says Nickie Nixon, who plays older sister Pepper. Her character is in love with Grayson (Shawn Saunders), as is her younger sister, Charlie (Merry Magee). "The relationships are really the crux of the play."

It's a story about what happens "when the skeletons in your closet won't leave you alone," Magee says. "I think it's about atoning for your sins, but also bearing them deep down."

Under Harbold's direction, the actors are incorporating percussive sounds and movements, drawn from theatrical productions like "Stomp" and dance videos, to suggest the power of trains.

Those percussive elements aim to help theatergoers to be caught up as witnesses to the action. "It's rhythmic, it's loud, and more importantly, it's just a level of excitement and anticipation," Magee says. "There are so many scenes where the train is coming right at you. If you can feel the power of a train coming towards you, those vibrations, you'll feel the energy."

Train, spotting

Utah playwright Morag Shepherd's "How Long Can You Stand on the Train Tracks: A Game for Two Sisters" premieres in a joint production by the Salt Lake City companies Sackerson and Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory.

When • July 7-9 and 12-16, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Babcock Theatre, downstairs at the Simmons Pioneer Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $18-$25; reservations at dime.io/events/traintracks, or at the door

Info • sackerson.org

| Courtesy Actor Merry Magee plays Charlie in Utah playwright Morag Shepherd's "How long can you stand on the train tracks: A game for two sisters."