Jerry Rapier (right) is staging the work of Eric Samuelsen (left) at Plan B.

It says something about the status of live theater that Eric Samuelsen is not a household name in Utah. The respected, even beloved, retired Brigham Young University instructor is considered by many to be the state’s leading playwright. Some fans go as far as to call him “Utah’s Ibsen,” embarrassing Samuelsen deeply. 

“I would never claim to be an Ibsen or anything like it. I’m not in his league,” Samuelsen says, squirming. He should know after translating Dollhouse and Ghosts from the original Norwegian.

Still, the scope and power of Samuelsen’s work has won him a residence as a playwright at Plan-B Theatre Company. “Eric is one of the best, if not the best playwright in the state,” says Jerry Rapier, producing director, who is staging four Samuelsen works, including a radio broadcast, during the 2013–2014 season. (Ghosts is part of the retrospective.)

“I want to give people a chance to see the full range of the work Eric creates,” Rapier says. “These plays show his versatility as a playwright.”

Samuelsen’s range is striking in its subject matter alone. Nothing Personal, opening Oct. 24, examines Susan McDougal’s refusal in 1996 to testify at Kenneth Starr’s grand jury into the Clinton Whitewater controversy. Her defiance earned her 18 months jail time.

Fairyana, Dec. 3, which will be broadcast on KUER, is a comedy about a team of misanthropic, death-obsessed alcoholics who write a kids’ TV show.

Clearing Bombs, opening Feb. 20, 2014, imagines a conversation between economists Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes who in real life spent a night on the roof of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, during the Blitz. Total war, economics and the future of Western civilization adds up to cerebral theater.

Although Samuelsen is an active Mormon, he wrestles with universal themes, says Rapier. “He’s far more than a ‘Mormon playwright.’”

Samuelsen delights in the impact his work has on Mormons and non-Mormons alike. “What fascinates me is the human stories in Mormon culture. The struggles of families and individuals confronting their own culture.”

Three of his short plays open March 27, 2014. In Bar and Kell, two women set out help a single mother, only to question their own motives. In Community Standard, a woman juror in an indecency trial is confronted by her own marriage. And in Duets, a woman wrestles with her choice to marry a gay man. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Utah’s top playwright is a fan of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Or that he identifies with Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s national hit The Book of Mormon musical. “The story is preposterous,” he says. “But that’s the fun. At its heart, it’s very sweet.”

Click here for more info on Plan-B Theatre's season featuring Samuelsen's work.

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