Theater review: SLAC’s “Course 86b in the Catalogue”
Colleen Baum is a wonderful actress familiar to Salt Lake City theater audiences for roles in productions big and small, dramatic and comedic. And in the Salt Lake Acting Company world premiere of playwright Kathleen Cahill’s Course 86b in the Catalogue, Baum may have just found a role that offers her a chance to play to the full spectrum of her talents.
As Stevie Stuart, a paleontologist who runs off to teach at small-town Delta Community College after her marriage collapses, Baum carries the play through virtually non-stop laughs with a wide-eyed wonder that conveys her excitement at the fossil discoveries in her new neighborhood, as well as bewilderment at the strange characters around her in a town that, as she puts it, isn’t so much a town as some buildings in the middle of nowhere.
Among her fellow occupants of said town: Dell Nelson (played by Elis Groves), a small-town girl with an innate talent for anatomical drawing (minus those nasty sexual organs,which her religious background prevents her from including in her drawings); Sterling Jensen (Topher Rasmussen), an ape-man of sorts and Dell’s unlikely beau; and Bill Stuart (Daniel Beecher), Stevie’s ex-husband who has followed her to town and moves into a chicken coop not far from her house, swearing he’s ready to start a family with her, despite his history of infidelity.
Together, via Cahill’s wondrous script full of great one-liners (one of my faves: “I’m a paleontologist, I’ll miss you when you’re dead”), the cast explores issues ranging from history to evolution to religion, all of them used for comedic value, as well as pushing Baum’s Stevie across an arc that takes her from a despondent divorcee at the beginning to an electrified (you might even say born again), curious woman willing to give love a shot once again by show’s end.
Cahill is a treasure as a playwright, familiar to SLAC audiences through shows like Charm and The Persian Quarter in recent years. This latest work is an inspiring comedy that never makes fun of its small-town inhabitants. Keven Myhre’s stage design takes the audience into the desert, from Bill’s chicken coop to the road that takes Stevie to a wonderland of artifacts. Tracy Callahan’s direction moves the characters naturally through the set, and elicits performances from the actors that never turn into camp, even as they all seem on the verge of being completely unhinged at one point or another.
That’s all part of the fun of Course 86b in the Catalogue–you’ll laugh throughout, while still being given the chance to ruminate on some massive ideas. You should definitely take advantage of this melding of fine acting, serious laughs and stellar dialogue–it’s a package deal that doesn’t come around every day.
Course 86b in the Catalogue plays Wednesdays through Sundays through May 6; visit the Salt Lake Acting Company Web site for tickets and show times.