South Charlotte native Jack Utrata was only 10 on Sept. 11, 2001. Just a month before, Utrata’s sister was in New York for an internship. Though she was home safe that day, a simple twist of fate could have changed everything.
Utrata, now 22, has made his professional Charlotte debut at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) in NoDa in “Recent Tragic Events,” a play that explores the delicate balance between chance and choice. Set in Minneapolis, Minn., the play takes place on Sept. 12, 2001.
Utrata plays Andrew, an airport bookstore manager who learned about the 9/11 attacks on AOL while getting ready for work. Though the event is still fresh in his mind, he keeps a blind date with Waverly Wilson, a young advertising executive who looks oddly familiar to him. The date starts awkwardly, but Andrew realizes he and Waverly have two things in common: their taste in literature and Waverly’s twin sister, Wendy.
Throughout the show, coverage of the 9/11 attacks plays on the television, as Waverly receives a call from her mother saying she hasn’t heard from Wendy, who lives in New York. As they struggle to understand life after 9/11, a cast of unusual characters questions the nature of existence and fate.
“It’s a story you’re familiar with, but it’s a different way of telling it,” said CAST executive director Crystal Dempsey, who explained the show as a “dark comedy with twists and turns.”
Craig Wright, who penned “Recent Tragic Events,” has written several successful television series. He received Emmy nominations for his work on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” and has written for “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Lost.”
Those familiar with this non-traditional style of storytelling will enjoy the show, especially the appearance of Joyce Carol Oates, played by a sock puppet.
“The sock puppet brings some mirth and joy into the situation,” said Dempsey, who suggested the Oates puppet is an external device used to bring outside perspective and distance. Oates, who happens to be Andrew’s favorite author, brings comfort to him as he wrestles with “where chances stop and choices begin.”
To prepare Utrata and the actors of “Recent Tragic Events,” CAST artistic director Michael Simmons asked the actors to examine tragic events that have occurred since 9/11, even ones that are deeply personal.
“My recent tragic event is that I lost a friend to cancer,” said Utrata, who dedicates his performance of Andrew to the real-life Andrew Crabtree. Utrata and Crabtree shared the stage in a production of Eurydice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Andrew (in the play) is a giver, and the real Andrew was always doing things for other people,” Utrata said. “I think of him every time we do the show.”
Utrata double-majored in dramatic art and communication studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he appeared in numerous shows. He performed in the Playmakers Repertory Theatre production of “Cabaret,” and is currently auditioning for the Broadway revival in New York. Utrata will appear in CAST’s “A Tuna Christmas” later this fall.
CAST has made a name presenting challenging and sometimes edgy contemporary work. With only 86 seats in the theatre, “Recent Tragic Events” is intimate.
“All art can make you feel, but when you’re with other people, (the show) becomes a living, breathing experience that’s different every night,” Dempsey said. “‘Recent Tragic Events’ allows you to process information that you may have put to the side.”
When Utrata reflects on 9/11, he remembers the feeling of helplessness and uncertainty. “This show has given me an opportunity to do something about it,” he said.
“Recent Tragic Events” runs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through Oct. 12 at CAST, located at 2424 N. Davidson St. Tickets are: $28, adults; $22, seniors (60 and older); $18, students. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 704-455-8542 or go to NCCAST.com.