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Theater review: SLAC brilliantly produces premiere of 'How to Make a Rope Swing'

Published: Monday, Feb. 11 2013 12:50 p.m. MST

Glenn Turner, Jayne Luke and Lucas Bybee star in Salt Lake Acting Company's "How to Make a Rope Swing."

David Daniels, dave.d photography

"HOW TO MAKE A ROPE SWING," Salt Lake Acting Company, through March 3, $15-38, 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org

To Mrs. Delores Wright, Arthur “Bo” Wells is the man who makes sure the toilets flush. Bo sees Mrs. Wright as a “dinosaur with a large dictionary.” A dictionary and a thesaurus, she corrects him.

These two proud, indomitable individuals — a white, retired grade school principal and a black custodian who has worked at the school a half century — are forever linked by a horrific act of racial intolerance.

In “How to Make a Rope Swing,” Shawn Fisher walks the audience through the minefield of racial relations. The Utah State University professor who heads the school’s graduate theater program has crafted a heart-wrenching drama getting its world premiere in a brilliant production at the Salt Lake Acting Company.

The playwright was honored with the Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award, which, it appears certain, is the first of the laurels Fisher will be receiving as the drama is further developed. SLAC’s production is the play’s world premiere, but it was first presented at a reading in Fisher’s New Jersey hometown which inspired many of the events, at the Cape May Playhouse.

The ethnic divide in the fictional town of Oakbranch, N.J., mirrors experiences of Fisher’s own grandmother when she was assigned to integrate the school district in Ocean City, N.J., a town which earned the nickname “the Mississippi of the North," where she was an administrator. The retelling of her challenges, accompanied by her own beliefs of two separated societies, has affected Fisher since he first heard them. The finely detailed characters he has written into “How to Make a Rope Swing” are the result in this personal work.

Bo and his junior janitor, Mick, are emptying the contents of a dilapidated, soon-to-be demolished schoolhouse as the play begins. When the stern Mrs. Wright enters, the congenial atmosphere is broken, and painful memories of the past are shared. Was the death of Bo’s beloved wife an accident, or does Mrs. Wright know more than she has acknowledged?

Jayne Luke plays the aging Mrs. Wright with quiet dignity that slowly evolves into regret and shame. Glenn Turner as Bo, who has “run out of ‘yes, ma’ams,’” is her determined adversary. The abundantly talented Luke and Turner give nuanced, searing performances. Mick, who at first appears a slacker but whose wisdom is slowly revealed, is played to perfection by Lucas Bybee. Adrianne Moore intelligently directs and propels the play to its rewarding conclusion, even through the slow beginning of each of the two acts.

Bo’s deceased Marian becomes an endearing, unseen character with her presence felt throughout the play. Though Marian and Mrs. Wright worked in the same classroom, when the caring teacher at a blacks-only school was transferred and reduced to Mrs. Wright’s neglected aide, the play reveals no lament Mrs. Wright feels for not befriending Marian, despite the loving woman Bo describes to her.

Content advisory: Brief language

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