CEDAR CITY — If you plan a trip down to Cedar City to see Utah Shakespeare Festival's “How to Fight Loneliness,” bring a suitcase large enough to include all of the play’s emotional baggage.
A box of Kleenex wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
Because “How to Fight Loneliness,” which runs through Oct. 14, will stay with you long after the actors take a bow.
That was certainly the case after the matinee show on Wednesday, Aug. 30. As audience members filed out of the intimate Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre, multiple conversations discussing the play’s heavy subject matter could be overheard.
The contemporary play, written by Brigham Young University graduate Neil LaBute, introduces its audience to a married couple, Jodie and Brad. Although it’s clear that the husband and wife care deeply for each other, a prolonged silence between the two indicates that something is plaguing their relationship.
The lack of dialogue at the start of the play is worth noting, as it leads the characters to tell their story solely through facial expressions and actions. The powerful acting, combined with the intimate black box theater setup, immediately places the audience in the heart of the couple’s troubles.
For the first several minutes, viewers watch Jodie and Brad navigate the small stage with little actions that convey a much larger anxiety: turn on the record player, move the platter of food on the table, pour a drink, put the platter of food back in its original place, repeat.
The silence is eventually broken and the audience learns that the couple is expecting a visitor — an impending arrival that seems to create mixed emotions. When their guest, Tate, finally shows up, the three characters humorously dance around the matter at hand until Jodie musters up the courage to say it: After three years of remission, her cancer has returned.
Knowing all too well the journey that awaits her, she’s unwilling to once again travel down the path of receiving medical treatment that leaves her emotionally and physically drained.
The harrowing request she makes of Tate cuts sharply through the air.
“I want you to kill me.”
Jodie, played by Tessa Auberjonois, has resolved to end her life on her own terms. Auberjonois portrays a skillful balance of fear and determination as she remains adamant in her decision. It’s a decision met with great resistance from her husband Brad, who in addition to wanting his wife to keep fighting for her life, also disagrees with her choice for ethical reasons.
Portrayed by festival artistic director Brian Vaughn, Brad passionately encapsulates the pain and denial that those indirectly affected by terminal illness often experience.
As the couple grapples with this situation, Tate remains a stalwart supporter, often serving as a mediator. While all three actors delivered convincing and emotionally stirring performances, Corey Jones as Tate was especially compelling in his portrayal of a compassionate friend who’s just a little rough around the edges.
“How to Fight Loneliness” provides an in-depth and up-close view of a trio of diverse people coming to grips with a harsh reality that only grows harsher as the play progresses.
Although the play centers on a controversial issue, the strong performances of all three actors shine through to create a moving production. The acting is particularly impressive given there is no intermission and each character is such a demanding role.
The black box theater style also lends itself well to the production, as the minimal setup, a simple living room layout, allows for the play’s emphasis to fall solely on the thoughts, actions and emotions of the three characters. The 200-seat theater places viewers on all sides of the room, giving audience members an intimate and unique view of each character’s experience.
Festival patrons should note that the play includes strong language throughout, including frequent use of the F-word. And while “How to Fight Loneliness” could be divisive depending on personal views, it also facilitates dialogue regarding sensitive issues, leaving audiences with much to consider.
Content advisory: “How to Fight Loneliness” contains strong language throughout and mature content and themes.