From the opening scene of How to Make a Rope Swing, playwright Shawn Fisher delves right into race as a topic worthy of a lyrical--and in this case hysterical--volley of dialogue as an elderly black handyman named Bo educates a young white janitor on the difference between Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, a player who Bo contends was the true pioneer in breaking baseball's color barrier. Robinson, Bo says, was simply the "right kind" of black player to be accepted by white America.
The scene is a winning prelude to what proves to be an intense and layered look at racism through the relationship between Bo and Delores Wright, an elderly former teacher who returns to the fictional South New Jersey town of Oakbranch with enough money to build a new school. Fisher's story unfolds at a languid pace, slowly revealing the complex relationship between Bo and Delores that stretches back 50 years, to when Bo's wife Marion transferred to Delores' school as part of the school system's desegregation.
Bo and Delores are reunited when she requests he be consulted on naming the new school, an unusual request of a handyman and one that immediately lets the audience know that the relationship between the two is far more than simply that of long-ago coworkers. It's a testament to Fisher's skills that the audience is constantly served new morsels of information right up to the play's final scene that help illustrate the complex history of the town of Oakbranch, and the characters on stage. Fisher's script won the Edgerton Foundation new American Plays Award, and its obvious why when I got to see a preview of the show.
I won't ruin any of the surprises or subtle twists in the story that unfolds as Bo, Delores and Mick, the young janitor, find themselves snowed in at the old elementary school. Rather, I'll suggest that if the intense and intelligent dive into small-town racial tensions isn't enough to draw you in to How to Make a Rope Swing, the powerful performance by Glenn Turner as Bo is worth the price of admission on its own. He is a mesmerizing presence, and watching his inner turmoil come to the surface as he learns the truth about his wife's relationship with Delores way back when is the driving force of the production.
In fact, while Jayne Luke (as Delores) and Lucas Bybee (as Mick) do fine work, there are times when they are simply too timid compared to Turner's presence. He dominates the stage--something that is even more noticeable in the few scenes when he's not on it.
Even so, How to Make a Rope Swing remains engaging throughout, both for its surprising story and playwright Fisher's way with words. The play is a world premiere, and evolved out of Salt Lake Acting Company's New Play Sounding Series.
How to Make a Rope Swing plays Wednesdays to Sundays through March 3. Visit Salt Lake Acting Company's Website for showtimes and ticket information. (Photo by David Daniels)