A play for children that explores death and grief? Utah school tour is offering just such a journey

Theater • Elaine Jarvik draws on experience with children who have lost a loved one for Plan-B’s fifth show for schoolkids.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ashley Marian Ramos and Benjamin Young rehearse for Elaine Jarvik's new children's play, "RIVER.SWAMP.CAVE.MOUNTAIN."

Elaine Jarvik surprised herself when she volunteered to write Plan-B Theatre Company’s fifth play for kids.

“I volunteer at The Sharing Place,” the journalist and playwright explained. “It’s a house — a nice, warm atmosphere where they provide support groups for children who have lost a loved one. They also provide support groups for the parents while their child is there.”

Jarvik’s 35-minute play, “RIVER.SWAMP.CAVE.MOUNTAIN,” takes the journey of grief over the loss of a loved one, as experienced by a child. As part of Plan-B’s annual free school tour, it will reach 15,000 kindergarten-through-third-grade students at 40 schools in 10 counties across the state, beginning Friday. There also will be several free performances at various library branches.

“For children, especially really young children, [death] is really hard to comprehend. It’s hard for adults to comprehend,” Jarvik said. “I knew that there were a lot of areas where children could maybe benefit from seeing a play if they had themselves lost a loved one or if maybe in a school setting, a friend had lost someone.”

In addition to partnering with The Sharing Place, “RIVER.SWAMP.CAVE.MOUNTAIN” is complemented by a study guide for educators. The play depicts the emotional journey of siblings Izzy and JJ. Eight-year-old Izzy, played by University of Utah acting student Ashley Marian Ramos, is the older and “wiser” sister of 5-year-old JJ, played by U of U. acting student Benjamin Young.

Through sarcastic quips and the dynamics of a sibling relationship, the characters grapple with the notion that their grandmother is no longer with them. She cannot teach JJ how to ride a bike the way she did Izzy, nor is she able to listen to Izzy’s angelic singing voice. How the children deal with these concepts is beautifully captured through a humor that only childlike innocence can deliver.

“Even though it’s a pretty serious subject matter, the show is a lot of fun and people will find it very endearing,” said RSCM director and Plan-B co-founder Cheryl Cluff. “The two actors have this amazing sibling chemistry; they are so adorable together. It’s an exciting adventure in addition to being about grief.”

The production features Izzy and JJ, a couple of backpacks and a bench, props that make traveling across the state and performing in a variety of settings easier. The atmosphere of each location in the play’s title is depicted through the imagination of the characters and represents some stages of grief that a child might experience.

“The river is more sadness and tears,” Jarvik said. “The swamp represents feelings of misplaced anger: you’re angry at the person who died. You’re angry that things have changed. The cave is a darker, night-of-the-soul kind of thing where they can maybe finally get their understanding. The mountain is the adventure: You get up to the top and see bigger views. I just wanted something for the kids to enjoy actually watching. I wanted them to be able to explore these emotions and I hope it also has some lightness to it.”

Plan-B launched the elementary-school tours in an effort to bring theater to communities that do not have easy access to it. Each production has focused on creating an educational experience. Past themes include bullying and body image.

“With reduced funding in the arts, we felt like it was something that was important to do,” Cluff said. “Each of our plays are some sort of socially conscious issue. We wanted to expose [kids] to theater and the arts, but also have some topics that would have an even longer life and hopefully start a discussion between the kids and their teachers, or maybe kids and people at home; their siblings and friends.”

Jarvik said she hopes that audience members will enjoy embarking on Izzy and JJ’s journey, and that when they leave the production, they will feel more comfortable confronting the concept of grief.

“Being able to talk to people who have lost somebody is difficult,” Jarvik said. “Maybe this is a tiny step toward a better conversation.”

“RIVER.SWAMP.CAVE.MOUNTAIN”<br>The play was created specifically for grades K–3 and their teachers and families — and is accessible to those as young as 4 years old. The play, running 35 minutes, including a brief post-show discussion, was developed in partnership with The Sharing Place and funded in part by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. More information at www.planbtheatre.org.

Public performances

In addition to a schools tour, there are several public performances:

Repertory Dance Theatre’s Ring Around the Rose series performance

When • Saturday, Oct. 14, 11 a.m.

Where • Black Box Theatre, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $5.50; www.rdtutah.org/forkids

Library branches (free, no tickets required)

• Thursday, Oct. 19, 2 p.m.; Main Salt Lake City Library Story Room, 21 E. 400 South

• Friday, Oct. 20, 2 p.m.; Glendale Branch, 1375 Concord St., Salt Lake City

• Thursday, Oct. 26, 2 p.m.; Centerville Library, 45 S. 400 West, Centerville

• Friday, Oct. 27, 4 p.m.; Davis County Central Library, 155 Wasatch Drive, Layton

• Saturday, Nov. 4, 11 a.m.; Sweet Branch, 455 F St., Salt Lake City

• Saturday, Nov. 11, 11 a.m.; Chapman Branch, 577 S. 900 West, Salt Lake City

• Friday, Nov. 17, 4 p.m.; Roy Library, 2039 W. 4000 South, Roy

• Saturday, Nov. 18, 11 a.m.; Marmalade Branch, 280 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

• Saturday, Nov. 18, 2 p.m. ; Anderson-Foothill Branch, 1135 S. 2100 East, Salt Lake City