Art & Class, the latest production in Plan-B Theatre’s entirely virtual season, is based on the kind of news story that makes a lot of us shake our heads and scream “not all Utahns!” In 2017, an elementary school teacher in Hyrum shared artwork with his sixth grade class that contained nudity. (You know, like pretty much any art museum on Earth.) The teacher was accused of being a child pornographer, the police were called, and he was fired faster than you can declare porn a public health crisis.
The incident made national headlines, but playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett imagined more to the story than the outrage cycles of social media and short attention spans that online news allows. His play changes some of the real-life details and invents some others, but the basic facts are the same. When art teacher Lucia (Flo Bravo) meets with the principal, her friend Leland (Roger Dunbar), she expects to make small talk and commiserate over school supplies budgets. Instead, he tells her that parents are complaining about artworks, like The Brunette Odalisque and An Allegory of Venus & Cupid, the students were given at the school library. Lucia intensely defends herself and eventually confronts Mindy (Stephanie Howell, bringing her finest Karen energy,) the offended parent. After Mindy retaliates with a public Facebook post attacking Lucia, Lucia is at risk of losing her job, straining the already tense relationship with her husband Riley (Bijan Hosseini).
The story is a depressingly perfect microcosm of the kind of culture wars that have taken over national politics while examining a wide range of Utah-specific social debates around race, gender, immigration, sex, addiction and, of course, religion. Bennett’s writing is filled with the kind of local detail that only a playwright from Utah would understand. He understands how seriously the characters take these issues, and Art & Class isn’t afraid to show the uglier parts of Utah culture. At the same time, Bennett isn’t interested in making snap judgments about any of his characters. Mindy, who on paper is the most stereotypical of the characters, becomes more complex throughout the play, and though Bennett clearly sympathizes with Lucia, she is allowed to make real mistakes too.
Writing for a Latina character, Bennett consulted the different actors who played Lucia at several readings to develop the character’s point-of-view. I definitely don’t have the authority to say whether the characterization is authentic or not, but Bravo capably anchors the play. Dunbar gives another standout performance. Though the play has several important scenes about Lucia and Riley’s marriage, the relationship between Lucia and Leland is far more interesting than the relationship between Lucia and Riley. Their relationship has a strange intimacy—Leland is one of the few people in town Lucia can connect with, and they exist in some gray area between colleagues, friends and mentors. They are both bad at boundaries, too smart for their own good and consider themselves outsiders. (Though Leland has plenty of privilege that Lucia simply can’t access, which the play smartly acknowledges.) Their ongoing debate, and their inevitable falling out, stings the most for listeners because both characters are so clearly conflicted about the difficult choices they have to make.
This dialogue-heavy play works well as an audio drama, with strong direction by Plan-B’s Artistic Director Jerry Rapier. Still, I wished I could see how the play would look on an actual stage with actors that have more tools to use than just their voices. Let’s hope we can all be back together in a theater soon.