To catch a predator

By By Lisa Anderson

By Lisa Anderson

Internet predators are a concern for parents across the nation, and Doris Baizley and Susan Raffanti address this frightening and growing trend in Salt Lake Acting Company’s current production, “SEXSTING.”

Directed by Anne Stewart Mark, “SEXSTING” tells the story of an FBI agent who impersonates a 14-year-old girl in an online chatroom to befriend – and eventually arrest – a man who is considered to be a sex predator.

We’ve all heard of these creepy, dangerous chatrooms, and the cast and crew of “SEXSTING” effortlessly bring to life the tapping of keyboards and the wistfulness of so many typists.

As it turns out, there is a much larger gray area than we might have imagined, and these characters expose a much more complex problem than a sex predator/victim relationship.

In this case, the predator is a family man, screen name “Johnny D,” played with remarkable depth by Paul Kiernan. Here we see a guy who fluctuates between offering good advice to his new “friend” and asking “her” grossly inappropriate questions. He warns her that teenage boys will not treat her right, and in the next breath asks her how far she’s gone and whether or not she liked it.

As he presses for details of her sex life, the audience is left feeling helpless and uncomfortable, and as we see the same man interact with his family we see that he is not purely a monster, but a man with flaws. We are forced to empathize with this man whose desires do not match our own.

As the two grown men talk to each other, some true bonds of friendship are formed and we are shown the difficulties the members of law enforcement face in their daily struggles to fight this rising tide of filth.

Peder Melhuse does an amazing job as the FBI agent, making us laugh as the stern, adult male spoke typing in the lingo of a sweet-but-seductive 14-year-old girl and making us wince at the effect of his flirtations with John. Melhuse teaches acting and voice in the U’s Actor Training Program.

Valerie, the wife of the perpetrator, is played by Colleen Baum, a SLAC mainstay. She fills this supporting role flawlessly.

Particularly disturbing was the apparently normal relationship between John Doe/Johnny D and his 18-year-old daughter, Kim. Kim is played by Lauren Elyse Bradley, a student in the U Actor Training Program. Bradley portrays for us a daughter whose trust in and love of her father is unshakable.

In 2004, “SEXSTING” won the Two-Headed Challenge for collaborations between a playwright and person outside the theater discipline. This challenge was started by the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and the Guthrie Theatre.

Playwright Baizley teamed up with criminal defense attorney Raffanti to write this play, which was based on investigations in similar cases. They studied chat logs and screen names and brought to us a true vision of what happens between older men and underage girls in shadowy chatrooms. Their next collaboration, “In Corrections,” is already well under way.

Bringing the feeling of an online world to the stage is a daunting task, nearly impossible in some ways, but Anne Stewart Mark and Keven Myhre (who is both set designer and producing director) are able to achieve this. With a row of computer terminals across the back of the stage, flashing screen names to go along with the disembodied voices of other online chatters and advertisements, the audience is drawn into the hazy, fast-paced world of the World Wide Web.