I don’t know what the party line is on which Ruth and Nathan Hale script is supposed to be the best, but “The Educated Heart,” currently playing at Hale Center Theater Orem, is by far the most enjoyable of the nine I’ve seen.
Unlike most of the other plays written by the godparents of Utah community theater, the characters in “Educated Heart” are not sitcom-inspired smart-alecks. When someone says, “She always likes to put in her two cents’ worth,” another character does NOT respond, “Two cents? With her, it’s more like a dollar’s worth!”
The humor here comes, gently and unforced, from natural situations and believable characters. In other words, the people in this play talk the way real people talk. And real people, you may have noticed, often say things that make us laugh.
They are unusual characters, though, which makes their believability all the more impressive. The play is set in 1933 in Boulder, Utah, to which a driveable road would not be built for another year or so. Isolated from everything — including the Depression — the townspeople get by without any outside influence. They are only marginally interested in Jessie McBain (Amanda Bakly; normally played by Jennifer Porter in this cast), the pretty young schoolteacher who has come to educate the valley’s few youngsters.
School is held in the parlor of the Jessup home, run by the good-natured but feisty old Ma Jessup (Linda Bramwell), who would just as soon tell Jessie how to run classes as anything else. Dealing with Ma Jessup is one of Jessie’s challenges; the other is to get the backwoodsy Todd orphans to start coming to school alongside the Jessup kids. Ma Jessup’s calling the Todds “trash” and “scum” — which makes me think of two other words: “pot” and “kettle” — doesn’t exactly discourage their truancy.
Those challenges are dealt with, and then there are more simple but engaging plotlines to manage. Fifteen-year-old Florabelle Jessup (Julie Erdmann) is secretly dating one of the forbidden Todd boys, Lemmy (K.J. Stratton). An older Jessup boy, overall-clad Owen (Douglas Dial; normally played in this cast by DeShawn Smith), is hitting on Jessie, as is the eldest Todd son, Riley (Elwon Bakly; normally played in this cast by Sanford Porter). And sooner or later, a road is going to be built into the town, and if these yokels don’t know how to read and write, they’re going to be hoodwinked by every swindler in the 48 states.
The warm performances, directed by Merrill Dodge, complement the earnest tone of the script. Amanda Bakly has a nice Marion the Librarian thing going as Jessie, and her real-life husband Elwon is a good foil as the anti-education Riley Todd. Linda Bramwell earns laughs as Ma Jessup, and I was extremely fond of Diane Reaveley’s fiery performance as town doctor Aunt Hattie.
Also very good — and not annoying — are the kids: Julie Erdmann, Chase Ramsey, Sarianne Carlson, Joseph Day, Jessica Crandall, K.J. Strattong, Stephanie Jensen and J.D. Halsey. (Halsey plays a Todd boy named Leaky: “Fit him to a ‘T’ up until a couple years ago,” Ma Jessup says.) You can’t make out half of what Joseph Day is saying as little Jean Jessup, but darned if he isn’t the most adorable tyke you’ve ever seen in a play.
Should you go? It is not life-changing theater, but it is simply and sublimely amusing.
After seeing eight Ruth Hale plays and thinking each one was terribly written, I saw No. 9 and thought it was good. Believe me, I was just as surprised as you are. But let it not be said I'm too set in my ways to give an honest review, even when it goes against my expectations.