Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Ora Jones will create the role of Therese, the town doctor who sounds the alarm over a public health crisis, in the 2022 world premiere of Jeff Talbott’s The Messenger, a riff on Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. At Pioneer Theatre Company in Utah, Wes Grantom directs a cast that includes Barzin Akhavan, Grayson DeJesus, Mark H. Dold, Meredith Holzman, Connor Mamaux-Partridge, Turna Mete, Marcello Say, Alexis Thomsen and Victoria Wolfe.
Talbott, whose play i had its world premiere at Pioneer in 2018, says the new drama takes cues from the 19th-century Norwegian source material, but veers onto its own path. The Messenger plays Jan. 14-29, 2022 at Pioneer’s home in Salt Lake City. Get tickets and information here.
Ibsen’s classic 1882 play about civic responsibility, greed, mob mentality and public health, gets a fresh spin — it also explores the media’s participation in a public health event — in the new play, first developed in Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-By-Play New Play Reading Series in March 2020. The play is written for a cast of seven, but the premiere staging features 10 actors.
The Messenger — written before the COVID 19 pandemic — was originally slated to premiere at Pioneer in the 2020-21 season, but the pandemic got in the way. Vaccination, testing and other safety protocols are now in place for the Salt Lake City rehearsal and run.
Talbott told me, “Here’s a crazy little story: I wrote a play that uses the beginnings of a spreading disease as a launchpad, and we workshopped it while a spreading disease was beginning to make its way around the entire planet. I haven’t changed anything in the play regarding that disease, and we’re getting ready to start rehearsals for the play while that same spreading disease continues to spread. Sometimes one can feel like writing plays is a weird conduit to plugging your human brain into the universe’s nervous system — but this time, I feel like I should consider unplugging myself. Right? Actually, though — no. It’s just one of the perils of sitting down at a keyboard: every once in a great while, you’ll hit a real nerve. The trick is hanging on when you do.”
Here’s how Pioneer Theatre Company bills it: “Norway. 1882. The Stockman home. Sound familiar? Not so fast. Therese Stockman (played by Ora Jones) is a small-town doctor and single mother who has made a shocking discovery about the industry that gives her town its lifeblood. Her friend Kristine Hovstad (played by Meredith Holzman), the editor of The Messenger, one of the two competing newspapers in town, is going to take the story and run with it, but at what cost? Using Henrik Ibsen’s classic An Enemy of the People as a departure point, this brand-new play examines our relationships with the press, our community, and each other. We also examine where to draw the line when deciding the right move to make.”
The production team features scenic and costume designer Yoon Bae, lighting designer Brian Tovar, sound designer Micah Maxson and composer Will Van Dyke. Jennifer Gregory is production stage manager. Emily Nacrissa Griffith is assistant stage manager.
Jeff Talbott told me in 2020, “On a ground-floor level, The Messenger looks like Ibsen’s play. We’re in Norway. It’s 1882. There’s a doctor. The town’s major tourist attraction, the mineral baths, seems to be contaminated. And the doctor has to save the town. But one floor up, everything changes. My play has less than half the number of characters. Where An Enemy of the People is five acts, mine is one intermissionless play in four chapters. And two of the central characters, including the doctor, are no longer men. The Messenger is about two women succeeding by pushing against a male-dominated society and that society’s expectations of them.”
He added, “The climate and environmental issues in An Enemy of the People definitely are the springboard in The Messenger, but my play is more interested in finding out how those issues — or any issue, be it religion, politics, whatever — become weaponized when used and misused by the press. At a time when we see the press being questioned on a daily basis, I wanted to write a play to look at how we question the media that delivers information to us, and the people who are deciding how that information is being both disseminated and used. This is a play about the press. It’s also a play about how we listen to each other. And how we don’t. It’s hopefully a call to action for all of us to try much harder.”
So, who or what, exactly, is “The Messenger” of the title?
Talbott explained, “Who exactly is The Messenger is one of the essential questions of the play. There’s a newspaper in town called The Messenger, and most of the central characters in the play, at one time or another, believe they are a messenger for the people. But who’s right? Is anybody? And if you think you’re the messenger, can you ever really be the messenger? That question is central to everything that happens in the play.”
Talbott’s play i was developed in Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-By-Play Series and subsequently produced by PTC in 2018. His play A Public Education was also seen in Play-by-Play and was a finalist for the 2015 O’Neill Playwrights Conference. His play The Submission was the inaugural recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Award and was produced off-Broadway by MCC Theater; it went on to receive the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award for New American Play and is published and licensed by Samuel French.
Other produced works include The Gravedigger’s Lullaby (Off-Broadway – TACT/Theatre Row; published and licensed by Dramatic Publishing) and Civics and Humanities for Non-Majors (2018 O’Neill Finalist; commissioned and produced by Montclair State University). His other plays include Joseph Cook (2019 O’Neill Finalist), Three Rules for the Dragon (2017 O’Neill Finalist, workshops – Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Colt Coeur and Premiere Stages), How to Build a City (workshops – TACT, Route 66), Elliot and All the Stars in the Midnight Sky.
Check out his profile on New Play Exchange, where some of his work is downloadable.
Talbott writes musicals with composer Will Van Dyke. As a musical theatre writing team, they were finalists for the 2019 Fred Ebb Award. Talbott graduated with honors from the Yale School of Drama. He is repped by Ben Izzo of A3 Artists Agency.
During the play’s development, I asked Talbott about his relationship with the work of groundbreaking Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906).
Talbott told me, “I love Henrik Ibsen. He’s my favorite playwright. I feel like he taught me everything I know about plays. He was one of the great moralists of world theatre, and he coupled that with a master storyteller’s instincts for how to embed messages and ideas in crackling tales about humans at crossroads. I first got to know his work as an undergraduate in theater history, but once I had read one of his plays, I started devouring all of them. Over the years, I have returned to them time and time again. I have always wanted to adapt his work, but am now zero for two in that department. I was thinking of adapting his wonderful soul-bruiser of a play Little Eyolf, but went down my own path to write a play called i that ended up having nothing to do with Henrik. And now, with The Messenger, I have once again sat down to adapt an Ibsen play only to write my own. Like a good little thief, I stole from him and then, like a good little student, I looked for clues in his writing and expanded them to suit my own ends. At least this time, part of the trick is making my play look like his play to start out with, only to have it all very quickly become something very different. So, I ended up saying The Messenger was a conversation with An Enemy of the People — it’s a chance for me as a writer to talk across the centuries with another playwright I admire through the language I know best: the language of playwriting itself.”
Learn more about The Messenger director Wes Grantom, who recently directed A Comedy of Tenors, The Lion in Winter and The Lifespan of a Fact for Pioneer. He directed the premiere of Talbott’s Civics and Humanities for Non-Majors, the diverse-cast ensemble play getting noticed by university theater departments; colleges in New Jersey, Illinois, Utah and Missouri have produced it.
Kenneth Jones’ six-actor, one-set play Alabama Story was the first Pioneer Play-By-Play reading to later get a full premiere production on Pioneer’s mainstage in 2015. By early 2022, it will have been produced in more than 40 cities around the country. It is published by Dramatists Play Service.
Karen Azenberg, who devised the Play-By-Play series, is the artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company. She directed the world premiere of Alabama Story and Jeff Talbott’s i.