Playwright Jeff Talbott shared with us an email he received. With the young student’s permission, we’ve reposted it here:
My name is Abby Chase. I’m a high school senior who just loves theater. I went and saw Jeff Talbott’s “/i/” tonight, and it was absolutely the best play I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing. For my technical theater class, we get to write reports about the productions we see, and I wrote one for this production of “/i/”. I know Mr. Talbott is a very busy man, but I just wanted to share what I wrote about his play with him, if he has the time to read it. I would really appreciate it if you would forward this email to him. [doc reprinted below]
Production Title: /i/ by Jeff Talbott
First, just let me say, “wow.” This production was so well done, and as a whole, I absolutely loved it. The story, acting, lighting, sets, costuming, sound, and directing were just so well thought out. Everything was artfully put together to create a piece that was riveting from the beginning to the end. Let me first preface with a little bit of the story line. This show was about a woman named Sarah, sometime in the future, who is wracked by sadness for an unknown reason and uses a medical procedure and a relocation program to forget her debilitating sorrow. However, she finds that when a man, Jake, comes into her life, he may not be entirely new to her life, and their past together could become her greatest sorrow and her greatest joy.
So, let’s begin with the writer behind the story, Jeff Talbott. I discovered throughout the course of this play that Talbott is a master at weaving seemingly insignificant details into a story that come together to provide both clues and powerful themes to the audience. The biggest example I saw was the questionnaire Sarah completes at the beginning of the play before her procedure. She was asked her favorite color: dark blue, like the night sky. Rare or well done: she doesn’t eat red meat. Paris or peanuts: peanuts. Running or walking: running. Watching or doing: doing. Swimming or floating: to which she would not respond. That question left her visibly shaken. Then the elements from these questions are woven throughout the rest of the story. She expresses her distaste for dark blue. She loves the steak she eats at a dinner. She tells her mother that she just wants to be able to walk through life and observe. She learns that Jake once had a son, a son who drowned in a swimming pool. As these elements are reintroduced, the audience learns about the changes that have taken place in Sarah. They also are able to pick up on the suspicion that Sarah may have known Jake in a past life, when we hear the story of the son. I cannot express what a powerful storytelling tool this was. It kept me in awe for the entirety of the production and added an additional source of tension to the story.
Now, on to the way they put the show together. The show opened with beautiful music written by Will Van Dyke that set the tone of the play. A lot of the same theme ended up playing throughout the play during scene changes after significant events. I found it interesting how light the music seemed to be when a lot of the content of the play was heavy. Oddly enough though, it fit the mood of the play perfectly. I feel like they kept the lightness of the music, because through Sarah’s eyes, she is just trying to reestablish her life. She doesn’t remember the very painful events of her past. The light music was there to remind us of that. Jake may have been weighed down by the loss of his wife and by the death of his son, but Sarah remembered none of that, and music was used as a tool to emotionally communicate that to the audience.
Oh my goodness, I need to remark on the way that lighting and setting played together in this production. I could tell some serious coordination occurred between Paul Tate Depoo III and Jax Messenger. They used fairly minimal sets, with only one scene that seemed to have a concrete, filled-out setting. There was large translucent screen on stage for the entirety of the play that was manipulated using light and shape to create the setting. They shined different colors of lights on different panels to create things like doorways, skies, and windows. There were set pieces like tables and benches, because obviously it wouldn’t make sense for the entire production to occur standing. These pieces were always used meaningfully though. There was definite thought put into each piece, because they were so selective about what they used.
One of my favorite parts of the show was the fireworks. Now this scene required Depoo, Messenger, and the sound designer, Kate Wecker, to work in close coordination for it to work. Jake and Sarah are on a date in a park by a baseball stadium. In order to set up the city feel, there are concrete elements in the set. There is a tree and a bench. Very minimal. But the lighting! Oh I don’t know how they worked their magic to make it look like they were sitting in the light of street lamp, but I am seriously impressed. The real magic started with the fireworks. The screens lit up with the colors of fireworks, and it honestly looked like light from fireworks reflecting on the faces of the actors. There was also the use of a distinct lighting effect to scatter dots of light across the audience and stage as if the firework had exploded. I really have to give Messenger a hand on that. It was so realistic. And the work of Wecker was also notable here, as she incorporated the kinds of cheering you hear coming from a baseball stadium as well as excellently coordinated sound effects for the fireworks. With all that technical work coming together, it felt like fireworks were being set off in the theater.
Now, I’ve got to comment a bit on the costuming choices of this production. I’m not entirely sure if this was intentional, but since they had someone specifically dedicated to hair design, I’m going to trust that Amanda French did this on purpose. I noticed part way through the play that Sarah had obviously dyed and grown out hair. Like, seriously, her hair was dyed a light brown, with maybe an inch or two of dark brown roots showing. If I may interpret some meaning into this choice, I believe this was used as a tool to communicate the change that Sarah has undergone and the person that she was before. I love that you can see a change has occurred, but you can also see that it wasn’t done completely and permanently. This plays into the fact that Jake inserts himself back into her life. She may have wanted to completely relocate and remove herself, but he loved her too much to allow her to do that. Perhaps she was still mostly her new self (her hair was mostly light brown), but he was coming back into her life, and she was letting him. She was giving her beginning color another shot. I would also like to comment on the actual clothing options, especially for Sarah. Gregory Gale does something really artful with his color choices for Sarah. In the first scene, before the procedure, Sarah is dressed in warm colors. However, throughout the rest of the show, until nearly the end, she isn’t seen wearing any other warm colors. I think the shift from warm to cool colors could represent Sarah’s change of self and her act of cutting herself off from previous relationships. She was starting over all alone. She was abandoning the memory of her husband and son, and adopting a solitary life. We only see the introduction of a warm color again on her last date with Jake, when she finds out about Isaac. This is significant because we can see that she is struggling with caring about Jake and Isaac. She doesn’t want to be attached, because she doesn’t want the pain that comes with caring, yet here she is adopting more caring and more warm colors.
Finally, I’ve got to make a comment on the incredible directing choices I saw made in this production by Karen Azenberg. Oh my goodness gracious, Azenberg was the woman who put it all together, who made it into the cohesive whole it was always meant to be. I could feel her image of this story, of this production, projected directly onto the stage. She made some bold and unique choices that really paid off and gave the show so much more value. For example, the way she chose to coordinate Sarah’s conversations with her mother was absolutely genius. Sure, she could have divided them and had them occupy different parts of the stage. However, I loved her choice to have them occupy the same space. It translated in a visual way, what it feels like to have a close conversation over the phone. Perhaps they are not physically there with you, but you feel like you are interacting with the same abstract space. The ways those characters interacted and didn’t interact onstage were unique and meaningful. I was very impressed to see the way that came onto the stage.
I’ve just now realized that I almost forgot to mention the wonderful work of the actors in this production. Let us not forget that without the actors, there would be no one to actually communicate this wonderful story to us. Let’s first comment on Nafeesa Monroe. Nafeesa played an interesting role, or should I say, roles. She was talented enough to put different personalities and mannerisms into all of her many characters. She was definitely a lot of the comic relief with some of her off-the-wall characters. And let me just quickly comment on casting. The choice to have one woman play each minor role might have seemed lazy, however I loved how even that played a significant part in the story. Sarah says that since her procedure and relocation, there’s been no variation. Everything and everybody seems the same. The audience then becomes aware that they’ve been seeing all these minor roles the way Sarah sees them, as the same person. Since we are on the topic of Sarah, let’s talk about the actress that played this part: Kathleen McElfresh. Kathleen was such a real actress in this play. At times, I forgot that Sarah was not a real person. I felt like I was following a real woman through real experiences. I loved the mannerisms Kathleen adopted for Sarah both before and after the procedure. The changes were subtle, but certainly noticeable. They helped the audience recognize that this was the same woman, but she had some integral part of her changed.
I also need to quickly applaud Todd Gearhart, or Jake. His most powerful scenes were the ones where his frustration and anger came out. This man has been dealing with his loss for years, just hurting. He has lost the love of his life, and it hurts him to see her again, so changed, and unintentionally breaking his heart. Todd is the master of showing that frustration and grief in subtle ways, so that the audience knows something is wrong, but just doesn’t know what yet. Also, I loved Colleen Baum in this, who played Sarah’s mother. This was one of the most uniquely and realistically played mothers I’ve seen in a production. She was comical and wise. I loved that Colleen chose to play this mother as an imperfect person, because too often mothers are idolized in plays, and this one was just so real and present, and I loved that.
I am so glad that I went to this show. I didn’t know what to expect walking into it, and I loved what I got out of it. It was full of very talented people, even more off-stage than on.