Throw in 3/4 a cube of Jane Austen. Add in equal amounts of Joss Whedon. A pinch of Aaron Sorkin. Oh, and don’t forget two cups of Joseph Smith. Stir evenly. Layer that on top of Merchant Ivory films, historical biopics, and BBC period pieces. Maybe, if you’re in the mood, fold in a little romantic comedy, but only the good stuff. Then mix and let stand. After that, throw in a lot of witty banter, contemporary flair, unflinching bravery, impressive style, moving spirituality, and really strong intelligence. Toss it in the oven until it’s “shiny.” Take it out, let it cool, top it off with some genuine originality, sparkling dialogue, realistic plots, heart rending vulnerability, and achingly honest characters. Then let it cool and (voila!) you have the plays of Melissa Leilani Larson.
Before I ever met the witty and wonderful Melissa Leilani Larson, I was introduced to her through her plays Wake Me When Its Over (now Standing Still Standing) and Angels Unaware (now Martyrs’ Crossing). The work itself created some powerful responses in me and I have very fond memories of attending those shows. Angels Unaware, especially, re-sparked my spiritual love affair with Joan of Arc (Jean d’Arc), which originally started with my first reading of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Both Shaw’s and Larson’s plays have led to independent inquiry and research on my part, which I hope leads to another Joan of Arc play (or two) someday from my end, although they will be very different than either Larson’s or Shaw’s… and definitely Shakespeare’s!… take on the Maid.
From the beginning Larson has engaged my mind, softened my heart, and spurred me into action. She has made me re-think certain worldviews, and review my own, not always pure intentions. She has made me see my fellow human beings more clearly and compassionately, as well as drawing me nearer to the heart of God. I don’t know how I can give higher praise to a writer, but Larson deserves every word of it. And in her most ground-breaking play (earth shattering, more like it!) Little Happy Secrets, all of Larson’s strengths are on display.
LITTLE HAPPY SECRETS, or ONE-OF-THE-BEST-DARN-PLAY-MORMON- PLAYS…EVER.
Little Happy Secrets is even more relevant now than it was when it was performed by New Play Project in March of 2009 (really not all that long ago). In the swirling storm that has come in the wake of Proposition 8 in California, President Packer’s comments during this last LDS General Conference, plus the recent conciliatory gestures made by Elder Marlin Jensen, as well as the Church, Mormons have been increasingly attached to the issue of homosexuality. Places like Facebook and the Bloggernaccle have been absolutely abuzz with activity over the divisive issue. What some thought would be a tempest in a tea-pot, has destroyed that little piece of ceramic and become a legitimate tempest. It’s a sharp issue, cutting off friendships, killing Church memberships, hurting families, and stirring up calls of social warfare. Most Mormons knew it was a big issue, but I don’t think we knew how big.
Amidst these burns and spears, Little Happy Secrets can act as a healing balm. Many plays have addressed the strained relationship between Mormons and homosexuals (and the tortured Mormon homosexual), ranging from the Pulitzer Prize winning classic Angels in America, to Stephen Fale’s Confessions of a Mormon Boy, to Carol Lynn Pearson’s Facing East. Most of these plays are polarizing rather than uniting, and sharpened with political points. However, Larson does something pretty impressive by not being baited by the politics of the issue and instead concentrating on the humanity of it.
First and foremost, Little Happy Secrets is about its characters… especially the character of Claire. The issue of the Claire’s homosexuality is obviously at the heart of the themes explored… but it’s Claire’s homosexuality. It’s Claire’s heartbreaks. It’s Claire’s relationships that form the heart of the show.
It’s interesting how the communities that Claire belongs to… the LGBT community and the Mormon community… don’t have a huge impact in the play, except in how they define Claire’s personal beliefs and experiences. We never see Claire talk to her Bishop or interact with her ward or confide in her visiting teachers. She doesn’t attend any gay pride rallies or support groups. Everything becomes very personal, rather than communal. She has a small group which she interacts with in the play… her best friend (and the love of her life) Brennan; Brennan’s boyfriend Carter; and Claire’s sister Natalie. We have references to her outside world and communities, but it’s an intimate selection of personalities that Claire interacts with. Consequently, that track makes Claire’s voice throughout the play clear as a bell.
And what a voice it is. Claire is a beautifully intimate and defined portrait. And, if you know Mel, have talked to Mel, laughed with Mel, Claire sounds an awfully lot like Mel. Claire even quotes Jane Austen, throws out tasty popular (and local) references, and comments on intelligent television shows (I don’t know how many times I have heard Mel quote or discuss shows like Firefly, Battlestar Gallactica, or West Wing). And Claire has Mel’s casually sharp wit, as well as her wonderful mix of deep seated spirituality and literary tastes. Out of all Larson’s characters, Claire is her most autobiographical. Which is interesting, since Larson has made it a point to clearly state that she is not a lesbian.
However, Larson has the imagination and capacity for empathy to take Atticus Finch’s advice to heart… she’s walked a mile in her subject’s shoes. None of her subjects (not even Claire’s unbeknownst rival Carter) becomes the “Other.” And Larson has brought Claire specifically as far from the Other as she could. Rather, Larson has made Claire her spiritual twin, a kind of alternate reality Mel. I loved recognizing Mel all over this play, feeling like I already had a friend in Claire. Which made her struggles all the more heart wrenching.
Before my wife Anne and I first went to see Little Happy Secrets I was very enthusiastically endorsing the play to her (I had seen the staged reading). But Anne was very hesitant about how she was going to react to the piece. She wasn’t afraid of the subject matter necessarily, but had suffered a bit of burn out about how polarizing and distressingly ugly addressing the issue can be. To Larson’s credit, Little Happy Secrets calmed all Anne’s concerns and the play thoroughly engaged her. We both left the theater with full hearts and a lot to talk about.
I don’t ever remember hearing a single complaint about the play. Not during the talk backs, not in reviews of the show, not in discussions with friends. That is saying something, considering the subject matter. It seemed to resonate with people across the political and religious spectrum. Mormons, non-Mormons, liberals, conservatives, homsoexuals and heterosexuals all seemed to really care about the play.
How is that even possible? Again, I belive it has everything to do with the fact that it was a character driven work, not an “issue” driven work. We are brought into Claire’s most personal, most honest, most vulnerable world. Not even her thoughts are secret from us, as she talks to the audience often and tells us her very frank and uninhibited reactions to the scenarios she finds herself in.
It’s important that Claire is not a partisan sort of person (it’s interesting that although Brennan is a strong Democrat, and Carter seems to lean Republican, yet Claire never defines herself politically). We do not immediately divide ourselves in camps as an audience, because Claire does not divide herself into a camp. She is simply Claire. Even her religious convictions and sexual orientation has very little to do with the LDS Church or the gay community. Her spiritual convictions and worship come from a very personal place, her relationship with God very intimate. We see no social coercion, or “group think” effecting her religious commitment or decisions. The same for her desires… she was not indoctrinated, nor overtly influenced into her homosexuality. Again, it’s a very personal struggle in her individual identity.
At the same time, she never lambasts either or these communities, although she could be, and in many ways is, defined by them. She never attacks the Mormons, she never repudiates the gays. There is no vindictive diatribes or dramatic demands made to either group. She doesn’t even demand acceptance (for being Mormon or being gay). You can go into that play as part of either group, and still leave the theater as part of either group. You can keep your beliefs about the issue. However, you can’t (unless your heart is made of iron) not care about Claire. Larson takes away the mask of the nameless cause or identitiless scape goat and forces you to put a face to it, a very personal face. She persuades you to see your friend, or your neighbor, or your sister. If you’re paying attention (how could you not?), and are an empathetic individual, she will even persuade you to see yourself.
It’s what makes the play brilliant and… good. Morally and spiritually, it tastes good. It’s filled with love, sensitivity, and kindness, all of which are extended to the audience. The play has earned every award and accolade it has received through that sheer love, sensitivity, and kindness. What could be more beautiful than that?
THE CLEAR VOICED INDIVIDUAL
Which brings us back to the issue that has inadvertantly come up again and again in this series about New Play Project and Out of the Mount: the individual and the group. With Larson’s powerful individualism, we have the foil to James Goldberg’s communal theater. What I observed about Mel’s relationship to New Play Project always intrigued me. She helped out and was a hard working member of the group. She staged managed, ran lights, was a dramaturg, etc. She was continually sacrificing her time and consecrating her abilities to assist in this good cause. But she always seemed to maintain her own separateness, as well. She had her own projects and causes and investments… she was always working on her own individual craft and drinking from her own individual experiences.
I love the communal aspect of New Play Project and theater in general. It’s one of the reasons I chose to focus on writing plays rather than novels. I really need to feel like I’m not alone, that I have friends and comrades around me. But it’s not enough to simply be a member of nebulous union or demographic. I need to know the people, I need to feel involved on a very personal basis. I need to care about the people around me, to feel their warmth, even if that warmth creates heat from time to time. Even if it creates occassional conflict. But it’s so much better than being alone and aloof. When we truly create a community, one worth keeping, it’s because we value and love the individuals within it. Any sort of family, or business, or organization, or church, or community is strengthened by valuing the single personalities that create it. In clamoring for a group identity, we must never crush the private spirit. For, after all, all of us are “alike unto God,” as the Book of Mormon tells us. In his eyes, there are no “-ites.”
New Play Project showed a mature understanding of this principle when they decided to throw their collective weight behind Larson’s individual vision. For her narrative voice, powerful and clear, proved to be a beautifully intimate descant, even as it was undergirded by the entire choir.