PRESS RELEASE: Zion Theatre Company celebrates Farewell to Eden‘s 10th Anniversary with a Production at the Echo Theatre.
Ten years ago, Farewell to Eden premiered at Utah Valley University. The student written show by Mahonri Stewart was a success, selling out its run, prompting enthusiastic reviews, and going on to win second place in the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival’s national playwriting award, as well as snagging a KCACTF National Selection Team Fellowship Award. The strong showing the play presented at the Festival prompted one of the judges, Gary Garrison, to say that the play was “the most intelligently written play I have read [for the festival] in a decade.” For its ten year anniversary, Zion Theatre Company is remounting a production of the play directed by Ronnie Stringfellow on April 15-27.
Farewell to Eden takes place in Victorian England, circa 1840, and tells the story of Georgiana Highett and her siblings Thomas and Catherine, who have recently lost their father and are tasked with carrying on his legacy. When two men enter into Georgiana’s life, including a childhood love from her past, life spirals into a web of complications and conflicts that have a dramatic build and a philosophical tension. Georgiana and her family are put in a place where they have to prove their mettle or fall, leading to a number of twists, turns, hilarious comedy, heart tugging romance, and intense drama.
Last month Arizona State University’s Binary Theater (which is a student run theater which ASU oversees) produced my play A Roof Overhead, a Mormon drama that explores the private culture war that arises when an atheist Sam Forrest moves into the basement of the Fieldings, a family of Mormons.
I am putting up the recording on You Tube for a limited time. It is a recording of a play, which are infamous for being somewhat awkward things. Yet despite some sound and picture issues that are inherent with that setup, I was so pleased with this production and cast (with whom I bonded with incredibly) that I wanted to share it. It will be up for only a limited time.
A Roof Overhead was produced once before in Utah last April with my Zion Theatre Company at the Little Brown Theatre in Springville, UT. There have been some major changes in the script since the Utah version, including some significant alterations to the ending (and an additional comedic family food “fight”). The Utah cast was chiefly Mormon, but the tables were turned this time with only me, one cast member and the scenic designer being Mormons this time around (and the actress playing the atheist character Sam actually is an atheist, which I was super pleased about). It led to some beautiful experiences which I’m sure I’ll write more about at some point.
One note: Some scenes got cut off because of battery issues with the camera. The vast majority of it is there and it’s easy enough to follow. You may want to enlarge it to full screen and crank up the volume for a fuller viewing experience.
Here’s the recording of the play, for those interested:
Like so many works of literature, Mahonri Stewart’s play The Fading Flower began as a “bizarre and beautiful” dream. It descended on him during his mission showing him, “an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color . . . When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma” (source). It was from there that Stewart began cogitating on the stories of The Prophet’s wife and children and where they must have ended up.
The result of that dream is a sort of Mormon morality play–but not in a bad way. The stage is set with two pulpits on either side and various characters take turns espousing their versions of the truth. Of course, when Brighamites (the term that RLDS members used to refer to Mormons out in Utah) speak from their pulpit they are content to blame Emma and condemn her children. When the sons of Joseph Smith Jr. take to their pulpit they lay right into the Utah Mormons. Both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and the others’ devilish nature. Almost all the characters represent a firm worldview and tend to speak in frank, agenda-driven dialogue thereby becoming the proverbial devils and angels baring down on the shoulders of the youngest Smith son, David. The only problem is David (and the audience) can’t be sure which is the angel and which is the devil.
David was born after Joseph Smith Jr.’s death and carried the fateful burden of being the subject of one of his last prophecies (see this somewhat dubious Wikipedia list for more info). Perhaps because of this prophecy, it is David’s character that struggles the most and follows the only discernible character arc in the play.
Emma, of course, has a sort of character arc too although most of takes place before the play starts. As the title implies, she is fading. Her character is driven not by the men yelling behind pulpits but, just as it was in life, by her husband. Joseph haunts Emma, making the audience wonder if, like Emma at the end of her life, anyone around The Prophet ever truly saw him.
Although the debate in the play hinges on the practice of polygamy (and it’s readability suffers a bit by the didactic nature of that debate), what’s really at stake for the characters (and for modern Mormons as well) are the questions of ultimate truth and infallibility. Can two people holding opposite viewpoints both be right? Can they both be wrong? What if they are a mix of the two? If a leader, whether of a family or a religion, is imperfect does that make her or him wrong in all aspects? What do you do when the story you’ve been told all your life turns out to be much more bizarre–and beautiful–than anything you ever could have imagined? Emma’s slow death and David’s search for truth and subsequent descent into madness are a cautionary tale. As Julia Smith tells her brother, Joseph III, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. . . That’s why when it was our turn to be strong we utterly failed [Mother]. We never let her be fallible” (Kindle location 1636-1638). It is the posing of those questions that make this script work as both a story and a drama.
Swallow the Sun, interestingly, follows an almost opposite story arc. It is the story of C.S. “Jack” Lewis’ early adult years when he was an avowed atheist feeling the pulls of Christianity. Lewis is, of course, a tantalizing individual for Mormons. Besides being an excellent writer of fiction, his skills as an apologist have granted him favored status in the LDS cultural cannon. Stewart’s play pays homage to that by dropping many hints at later Christian-themed writing endeavors. For instance, early on in the play Jack (Lewis’ preferred name in life and Stewart’s choice of character name)–who is seeking to antagonize an avowed Christian–says, “You know, Arthur, what you Christians really need is an advocate. A real, hearty, intellectual strength of an advocate, somebody who can stand up to the bullies likes me” (Kindle location 2208). The line is enjoyable in the banter of the script, but is also funny because the reader knows that this is precisely what Lewis later becomes. Then near the end of the play, as Jack draws up to acceptance of Christianity, he says, “I went on a bus ride the other day. On it, I had this. . . this voice, this feeling come upon me,” which is an obvious allusion to the pivotal bus ride in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Kindle location 2208).
Because the reader knows the end from the beginning, Swallow the Sun has a much lighter feel to it. The characters function as ideologues egging each other on. Which is one reason that, for me, this play was not as strong as The Fading Flower. Perhaps because it wasn’t as weighty but also because I think it could have benefited from scenes that didn’t center directly on Lewis questions of faith. Or perhaps it’s because in reading this instead of seeing it performed, I missed a lot of context and the resultant characters were flatter. But either way Lewis comes off not so much as a person but as more of a means to an end. I couldn’t help but compare it to Shadowlands and find it wanting, just a bit. The book version of this play (both plays actually) would have benefited from some notes citing historical sources and a few pictures of the productions, just to aid the reader in the imaginative journey. However, I am excited that this play is being made into a movie because I think it will work well in a cinematic style.
Stewart is rightly one of the leading voices in Mormon theater right now. He has a vast body of work and is doing exciting things with his theater company, Zion Theatre Company. Reading his plays maybe never be as good as seeing them performed, but is still worth the effort.
Zion Theater Company and Imminent Catharsis Media are presenting national award winning playwright Mahonri Stewart’s play Rings of the Tree on Friday, Feb. 3 and Saturday, February 4 at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City; as well as Thursday, February 9, Friday the 10th, and Monday the 13th, at the Grove Theater in Pleasant Grove. Continue reading “_Rings of the Tree: A Multimedia Play_ Premieres in February”
Zion Theatre Company. It’s been a singular focus for me lately, a near obsession. I’ve been working exceptionally hard to get this theatre company I started last January into full throttle. My summer hours are being poured to get the foundation layed, so that things will run smoothly once my time becomes more limited in the Fall. Why do I do this?
Obtaining theatre spaces to perform on, creating posters and ads, looking into liability insurance, organizing the on the ground producers in Utah, obtaining rights to scripts, looking for affordable ad space, sending personal (and probably annoying) fund raising letters to close friends and family, soliciting directors and designers and cast members, trying to sell videos to gain more capital, working the Facebook groups, attaching links… and that’s just on my end. I have producers, directors, playwrights, videographers, web designers and others who have been clocking in a lot of hours to get this group on its feet.Why do I do this?
The timing is pretty awful. I’m going to grad school this Fall at Arizona State University. I live in Arizona while the shows I’ll be producing are in Utah. I have a 9 month year old daughter, a 5 year old son with sensory processing disorder who’s starting kindergarten, and a very patient, supportive wife whose patience and support are being taxed, I’m sure. Why do I do this?
Why do I do this? Because it has been my dream to open a religiously and morally focused theatre company since early high school. Because, to paraphrase Eric Samuelsen, every Mormon Shakespeare needs a Mormon Globe. Because I love it. And because I believe not only is it what I want to do, but what I’m supposed to do. Because, if we do it right, I believe with all my heart it can be successful. And because we’ve had some wonderful doors opening for us lately which have seemed more than a little providential. Continue reading “Building Zion Theatre Company”
I have written two LDS History plays, one called Friends of God (about the events leading up to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom)the other called The Fading Flower (about the conflict surrounding the LDS/ RLDS schism about polygamy, especially as it related to Joseph and Emma Smith’s family). I was criticized by some people for writing the plays (one family member even told me after seeing the play, that he thought I was going to go apostate). Some people thought that the plays brought up too many uncomfortable facts in Church history. They thought that presenting a less than ideal image of Church figures would be damaging to people’s faith. And, truth told, there are some people I know who struggled with both plays.
The irony, of course, is that I wrote the plays to build up faith rather than tear it down… I consider the plays to tell the faith of people who struggled, but were ultimately redeemed by those struggles, either in this life or the next. The plays clearly state God’s reality and love and show the Church’s leaders as inspired, although not perfect. I addressed hard questions, but I also believe I presented answers to those questions, if people were willing to put aside their prejudices and preconceptions. And that, more often than not, proved to be the case. Continue reading “Writing the Hard History”