Plan-B Theatre Company explores the mysteries of Everett Ruess.
by Vanessa Chang
All he left behind was a cryptic inscription on a cave wall in Davis Canyon near Escalante.
“Nemo 1934” it read. Then, Everett Ruess dropped off the map of the stark red rock country that lured him from city life as a bohemian in San Francisco and off the maps of people in his life, including his family — mother Stella, father TK, and brother Waldo.
He was only 20 when he embarked on his journey with nothing but the supplies on his burro’s back. His artistic career in poetry, painting and block prints was just beginning, inspired by artists he admired and connected with such as Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange. The inspiration and solace he found in natural landscapes was an even stronger calling.
“Nemo 1934.” This brief statement has sparked fascination that continues to this day. Everett Ruess has been the subject of several books, documentary films, and the obsession of local experts such as historian Brad Rusho and antiquarian bookseller Ken Sanders.
Debora Threedy has channeled her Ruess obsession into a play, “The End of the Horizon,” that was workshopped at the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s New American Playwright program in 2006. This month, Plan-B presents its world premiere.
Directed by Kay Shean, the play is a fictionalized account of Everett Ruess’ family and how they dealt with the young artist’s disappearance. Threedy wrote the initial draft of the script in one evening. “I don’t think I was channeling Stella (Ruess’ mother) or Everett, though a friend was convinced that I was,” she explains. “But the words just composed themselves.”
“Regional stories are important, and Debora’s script as a first-time playwright would stand up against anyone else’s tackling this story,” says Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s producing director. “Ultimately, though, ‘Horizon’ is about a family and their attempts at communicating with each other.”
Ruess’ brother, Waldo, passed away in 2007, the last person with a firsthand account of the disappearance. How does one go about writing an intensely emotional story with no firsthand accounts? Have a deep interest in the subject matter, for one. “Like him, I feel a deep connection to the Canyon country,” says Threedy. “So it was inevitable that I’d be hooked by his story.”
Before rehearsals began, the cast and crew saw some of Ruess’ paintings, block prints and letters to and from his family. These materials are part of the collection at the University of Utah Marriott Library.
The fading black and white photographs don’t reveal anything extraordinary. Ruess’ soft, rounded face looks younger than his 20 years. He was still a boy when he smiled into the lens and walked off into the red rock horizon, his trusty burro in tow. But those boyish looks belied the intensity of an artistic soul.
What happened to the guy? Well, no one knows for sure. Some think he died as he had lived in the desert wilderness, perhaps alone, perhaps killed by bandits. Others say he concocted his own disappearance, making his break for a life free of family bonds.
Threedy’s script focuses on Ruess’ parents — god-fearing, middle-class Southern Californians who wanted a stable life for their two sons. Although Waldo is a poster child for obedience, it’s Everett who takes over the psyche of their mother Stella. Threedy herself plays the well-intentioned but overbearing mother. David Fetzer, a local musician and frontman for the band Mushman, walks in Everett Ruess’ shoes during flashback scenes and haunting dream sequences throughout the play.
Through study of an extensive collection of letters and his art work, Threedy knew Ruess’ short life was rife with speculation about his sexuality, questions about the true nature of his relationship with his family, and a desire to turn his back on civilization. Her script is svelte, stripping the story down to its barest emotional bones, as stark as the landscape of the remote red rock country.
The set design by Randy Rasmussen riffs off of Ruess’ famous prints. The black and white figures are at once familiar and haunting, giving the cast a minimal backdrop against which to paint the home environment of dysfunction and miscommunication.
Just as Everett’s story has no real ending, Threedy provides only minimal closure for the restless Stella Ruess. After all, it is the mystery and unanswered questions of his life and disappearance that provide so much of Everett Ruess’ appeal.
“A lot of people are drawn to Everett Ruess’ career and story because they were so short,” Rapier says. “It’s the tragedy of an artist struggling with his family and with himself, finally finding a niche—and then having it all end.”
Vanessa Chang is a former editor at Salt Lake City magazine, and the food writer at the Salt Lake Tribune
Plan B Theatre Company presents
The End of the Horizon
By Debora Threedy
Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts
138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City, (801) 355-ARTS, arttix.org.