“The view may change,” Jake Bellamy tells Sarah Cooper in “i,” as he takes her on a date to a tree-shaded bench facing the back of a parking garage.
As in every love story, of course, the view changes over the course of playwright Jeff Talbott’s mystery-centered love story, which plays through March 3 in a world-premiere production at Pioneer Theatre Company.
And when the central mystery between the couple — played by Todd Gearhart as Jake and Kathleen McElfresh as Sarah, his love interest — unspooled during the last act on opening night, I heard a woman in the rows ahead of me gasp.
That the story hadn’t too obviously telegraphed its central spoiler speaks to the production’s technical skill. I keep thinking about Paul Tate Depoo III’s effective sliding-paneled modern set and Jax Messenger’s richly textured lighting design. Notable, too, were the mood created by the dramatic fireworks that Messenger and sound designer Kate Wecker created inside the theater.
The show’s most significant problem is that the lead actors don’t provide dramatic sparks of their own. Despite Karen Azenberg’s well-paced direction and the actors’ thoughtful delivery, these characters display little chemistry.
As a love interest, McElfresh’s Sarah is pretty, as Gerhart’s Jake says, but her character never says or does anything distinctive. That could be because, as she later tells him, she is a “Relocated Person,” yet it makes Jake’s immediate interest seem creepy, rather than charming.
Utah-based actor Colleen Baum is pitch-perfect as Sarah’s mother, but the character doesn’t have anything to do to drive the story forward. The most interesting performance is that of Nafeesa Monroe, who shape-shifts into a variety of distinctive characters, most prominently Beth Denton, another RP who offers Sarah advice about being in a state of transition.
The script has been reworked and changed since Pioneer’s reading last year, which offers theatergoers insight into the process of play development. But the central conceit still feels derivative.
The story’s themes will spark interesting conversations for theatergoers about love and loss and memory. But when I think about RPs, I think about the journalistic term “real people.” That’s what’s missing here: I want to feel more heart, more authenticity, to make this love story come alive.
Pioneer Theatre Company’s ‘i’
This beautifully designed premiere production lacks chemistry in its derivative love story.
When • Reviewed Feb. 16; plays Monday-Thursday, 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees, through March 3
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25-$44 in advance ($5 more day of show); half-price for K-12 students for Monday and Tuesday shows; at 801-581-6961, the theater box office or pioneertheatre.org
Warning • Adult language