Your mental image of the typical Mormon family could probably use a few updates. In Utah, people both inside and outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can easily conjure the stereotype—a happily married mom and dad with three or four perfect kids ready to multiply and replenish the Earth into the eternities.
Not so fast. As of last year, the majority of adults in the Church are single, whether they’re divorced, widowed or never married. That’s a significant change, especially in a religion that’s especially fixated on traditional families. The complex, often painful experiences of single members of the Church are explored in Aftershock, a new play at Plan-B Theatre by Utah playwright Iris Salazar, herself a single Mormon.
Shaken from both the pandemic and the 2020 Salt Lake City Earthquake, Teah (Estephani Cerros) nervously attends a therapist’s office for her first visit. While waiting for the appointment, Teah has a bizarre dream—her counseling session has turned into an audition and her therapist has turned into Dr. Love Dearest (Yolanda Stange), a host who evaluates Teah for a TV dating show. Teah has no interest in being the next Bachelorette, but with Dr. Love Dearest’s encouragement, she shares stories from her life as a single Mexican woman in the Church.
Salazar is a writer with a perspective worth sharing—her experiences are both specific and broadly relatable. (Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a single’s ward—Church congregations specifically you’ve probably felt disillusioned by romance or stifled by cultural expectations.) It’s rare—and refreshing—to see art tackle the complicated feelings many of us feel about religion, especially in Utah. Both Aftershock’s protagonist and playwright are devout Church members, but the play is unafraid to make explicit and implicit critiques of the faith and its culture. Salazar feels no need to evangelize or sugarcoat tough realities—the play includes potentially triggering subject matter, frank discussions of sex and swearing, which is confusingly bleeped. Still, Teah (and, seemingly, Salazar) embraces her religion’s teachings and doctrinal rules, most notably about sex and dating. This nuanced treatment of faith and spirituality is the play’s strong suit.
While Salazar’s point-of-view is refreshing, much of Aftershock is frustratingly uneven. The play’s initial premise—a therapy session that turns into a dating show—is a strong idea, and Stange brings a needed burst of energy as the hammy host. Unfortunately, though, the conceit is all but abandoned, and the play turns into a straightforward therapy session as Teah describes key moments of her life. This not only sidelines Stange, who has little to do but nod supportively as Teah spills her guts, but it abandons the comic potential of the play’s initial idea. Why not introduce three single’s ward bachelors, a la The Dating Game, to illustrate Teah’s frustrations with dating? Why not start with a parody of a specific show—say, The Bachelor or Love is Blind—and launch into more serious depictions of Teah’s experiences. Without a clear concept, Aftershock flounders, and the play’s return-to-reality ending is more confusing than satisfying.
Salazar’s script is bursting with ideas—in barely over an hour, Teah essentially tells her entire life story, with anecdotes covering not only religion and dating but also race, gender, alcohol abuse, mental illness, harassment, women’s health care, the pandemic and body image. With such a wide breadth of subject matter, Aftershock doesn’t have time to dive past the surface level, and awkward pacing dulls the narrative’s impact. Two early scenes about nightmarish roommates drag without a clear purpose, while Teah’s explanation of her dating history comes and goes with little room to breathe. The capable ensemble—Danny Borba, Pedro Flores, Liza Shoell and Sam Torres—plays figures from Teah’s past, but the writing is too rushed for them to make an impact.
Despite the play’s missteps, Salazar’s unique voice is still a welcome addition to Utah theater. Plenty of stories address dating and sex, but it’s more rare to see a play that grapples with life as a single person in a culture obsessed with marriage. Teah struggles to be understood by friends both outside and inside the church and her virginity is treated as a punch line. At times she feels lonely, but the script also challenges the idea that romantic love is the only avenue for fulfillment. Cerros’s emotionally open performance captures Teah’s pain, but the best moments of Aftershock prove that there is more to this character than a relationship status.
Aftershock will be in-person and streaming at Plan-B Theatre through April 17. For tickets and more information, visit Plan-B’s website. Read more about Utah theater.