Excellent Performances Are The Principal Virtue of Wrong-Headed Two-Headed
Also see Bob's review of Hello, Dolly!
Although it is sensitively acted and directed, Two-Headed, a 70-minute, two-character play depicting at least 40 years in the lives of two Mormon women is a pretty tough slog to get through. The elliptical storytelling is the culprit here.
Author Julie Jensen, who is Resident Playwright at the Salt Lake Acting Company, has a deep, abiding hatred of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and her Two-Headed is a ferocious attack upon it. While religious tolerance is certainly a principle to be cherished and it is prudent to be suspicious of vitriolic agitprop, my superficial knowledge of Mormon belief and practice places me in no position to debate the playwright. Stated nakedly, as it is in the play, Jensen provocatively sees Brigham Young’s creation as an edifice for the sexual gratification of lecherous men. Although the setting of the play is a century and more ago, the play can hardly be seen as anything but an attack on the Mormon church. In any event, religious institutions are not above examination and criticism. Thus, Jensen’s vitriol is not the principal reason for my unhappiness with Two-Headed.
It opens in 1857 against the background of an historic event (which a program note informs us occurred on September 11). On that day, Mormon settlers (along with their Indian allies) attacked a wagon train headed to California and massacred 120 men, women and children at a spot in Utah known as Mountain Meadows. The reason for the slaughter is murky, but the act is here attributed to fundamentalist religious intolerance and hatred of immigrants. The two woman portrayed on stage, texturally age from very early adolescence to, in one case, senility over the course of the play. Physically, their appearance remains the same throughout.
Scene One. For a while, it seems that Hettie and Lavinia are retarded, but it develops that their childish speech and gestures indicate that they are children. It seems that they witnessed the massacre which Lavinia’s father participated in, and then removed various items from the victims’ bodies. Lavinia speaks of her friend Jane whom she favors over Hettie. Hettie wants to be shown the two-headed calf which Lavinia claims she has in a bottle of vinegar in her cellar.
Scene Two. Jane is dead, having been bitten fatally by an animal. Her husband Ezra is returning from Salt Lake City. Lavinia’s father faces trial for ordering the Mountain Meadows Massacre even though “it was ordered by Brigham Young” (In a program note, it is stated that the Mormons covered up for the guilty, and only one scapegoat for the crime was executed).
Scene Three. Pregnant with her third child, Hettie arrives back. She is married to Lavinia’s father who was preaching the Gospel in Connecticut, took over a Catholic Church and preached polygamy. He was thrown into an asylum, word got around that he was a killer, and now he and Hettie want to live again in Utah. However, there is a second Massacre trial upcoming, and Lavinia’s father cannot return. If Lavinia would provide $100, her father would be turned free with the understanding that he would leave Connecticut never to return. Lavinia is married to Ezra.
Scene Four. (Why do I go on?) Ezra is to marry Hettie’s daughter Tess who is younger than his own and Lavinia’s daughter. Lavinia is in rebellion against polygamy. She doesn’t want her daughter Janie to marry. She wants Janie to become a school teacher. Lavinia wants to commit suicide. She still expresses her love for her late childhood friend Jane.
Scene Five: Hettie and Lavinia have grown old; the latter is growing senile. If you want to know the rest, get ye to the Women’s Theatre Company in Lake Hiawatha no later than June 18.
The above noted elliptical storytelling is maddening. Each scene is pretty much over before we know the status and situation of each character or even the time frame for it. I believe that the information that ten years have elapsed since the prior scene is conveyed in the second and third scenes. I then assumed that there was the same gap separating the remaining scenes. However, given that Hettie and Lavinia appear to have gone from about age twelve to senility over the course of the play, it appears that more than forty years have elapsed. And, (here come the big deficiencies) nothing ever happens in the play. We only get a review of where things stand, and conversations about people whom we never meet, and certainly do not care about.
The confusion concerning the age and mental status of Lavinia and Hettie in the first scene notwithstanding, Karen Case Cook (Lavinia) and Gayle Stahlhuth (Hettie) perform with a natural grace and lucidity which illuminates their plight far better than their text. Director Barbara Krajkowski clearly has an affinity for playwright Jensen’s effort and she stages it with tenderness and dignity.
In the final moments, Hettie asks Lavinia about the two-headed calf. Lavinia states that it was a lie which she made up. It is clearly, author Jensen’s analogy for the Mormon church.
Two-Headed continues performances (Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) through June 18, 2006 at the Women’s Theatre Company, Parsippany Arts Center, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha, New Jersey. Box Office 973-316-3033; online: www.womenstheatercompany.org.
Two Headed by Julie Jensen; directed by Barbara Krajkowski
Two-Headed is a co-production with the East Lynne Theatre in Cape May, NJ where it will be performed from June 21 through July 15, 2006.