PROVO — “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father . . . And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” These words are spoken by Jesus in the New Testament (King James Version, Matthew 10:34-36), words that easily came to my mind as I watched Zion Theatre Company’s latest offering, Farewell to Eden.
Farewell to Eden is the story of three siblings in the British high society of the 1830’s who are mourning the death of their father. As they work to piece their lives together, four men and two women, most of them very different backgrounds, and shatter the family’s idyllic, insular existence. These outsiders—two working class women, two suitors, and two American Latter-day Saint (Mormon) missionaries—each shine a harsh light on the family’s beliefs about themselves and their world in an interesting examination of the world at the time.
Mahonri Stewart‘s highly literary script took about forty minutes for me to get used to. The first half hour plays out like a cross between a Jane Austen novel and an Oscar Wilde play. The characters all seem self-consciously witty, and the repartee between couples should satisfy fans of classic romantic comedies (although that’s not my cup of tea). However, about half an hour into the play, the missionaries arrive, which introduces the secondary storyline. At first I was peeved that important new characters were being introduced a quarter of the way into the play and that the story was taking such a radical turn. But I came accept this aspect of the plot and later even embraced it. Mahonri Stewart doesn’t make the missionaries the heroes in his play, nor does he clumsily use them as an excuse to preach to his audience. Rather, the Americans are used to introduce class and social tensions into the play that are explored in fascinating ways for the remainder of the evening. Although the Mormons are missionaries and some of the characters convert to Mormonism, Farewell to Eden isn’t a conversion story, nor is it “a Mormon play.” I cannot find any content in the story that would be alienating or boring to a mainstream theatre audience.
The trio of actors who played the siblings were talented enough to shoulder intensive roles that demanded great subtlety. My favorite of the three was Kevin O’Keefe, who played the frivolous but protective Thomas. O’Keefe’s character was alternatingly playful, dignified, distraught, and more, as was appropriate for the moment. I especially enjoyed how Thomas gradually accepted the mantel of head of the family and acted as a mediator between his sisters and the men seeking their company. Also eye-catching was Sarah Stewart as Georgiana, an intelligent, formidable woman who was still a product of her time. Sarah Stewart showed that Georgiana could match any man of her time in both will and wit, which was most apparent during the second act when she was confronted by points of view and events that her learning had not prepared her for. However, Sarah Stewart gave a human side to Georgiana, which came out in the scene where she was trying her new dress on. The more touching side of Georgiana made it believable to me that the character would have a brother and a sister who would do so much on her behalf. Finally, Cabrielle Andersen was an excellent foil to Georgiana and Stewart in her role of Catherine, a flightier sister who lives more in the moment than either of her siblings. The interactions between Catherine and Thomas seemed the most real of the evening, and I also appreciated the bond of sisterhood between the two (such as when the family declares that their period of mourning is over).
The other cast members also provided satisfying performances. Wes Tolman was enjoyable as Darrel, who was romantically pursuing Georgiana and Catherine. Tolman was charming and pleasant in his scenes with the women, but gradually revealed a dark side to Darrel when alone with some of the male characters. Also, Debra L. Woods was endearing as Mary, the hired help and the only character in the play who sees others for whom they really are. Woods wisely didn’t ham up her role, despite having the lion’s share of the comedic lines. Rather, her subdued acting style was appropriate for the venue and the performances of her castmates.
Finally, Joseph Vernon Reidhead was interesting as Stephen, one of the men who comes into the siblings’ lives. His character development could have been an easy cliché, but instead turned into an interesting case of a man who struggled to “take up his cross” and discover that, “. . . he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10: 38, 39). This inward struggle was most apparent in his final scene with Georgiana, which could have felt like an unncessary coda, but instead provided closure on the characters’ relationship.
That subtlety that pervaded the evening is likely due to the skilled hand of Ronnie Stringfellow, who understood the character- and dialogue-driven nature of Farewell to Eden. Stringfellow kept the action moving at a pleasant pace, and fostered the relationships among the characters that are essential to a successful production of this play. My only minor qualm with Stringfellow’s work was that it was sometimes hard to tell when one scene was ending and another beginning, which made it difficult to determine how much time had passed in the story. (At one point, I wasn’t sure if a conversation had occurred immediately after the previous scene or several months later.) On the other hand, I admired Brooke Wilkins‘s gorgeous period costumes, especially for the men. The smart cravats, vests, and coats were dazzling and brought a touch of spectacle to the black box venue without overwhelming the story or characters. However, in the small venue of the Echo Theatre I hope that Wilkins will be extra vigilant in cleaning the costumes because small dirty areas and spots on costumes were noticeable and distracting to me, even though I was sitting on the back row.
Farewell to Eden is a quiet little play, but an intriguing one full of plot twists and authentic character development. It is certainly the best play written by Mahonri Stewart that I have ever seen, and this production probably has the most pleasantly understated acting that audiences can find in Northern Utah right now. This tenth anniversary production of the play would be a thought provoking experience for anyone who catches Farewell to Eden this month.
[gss-content-box]The Zion Theatre Company production of Farewell to Eden plays at the Echo Theatre (145 North University Avenue, Provo) every night (except Sundays) through April 27. Tickets are $9-12. For more information, visit ziontheatrecompany.com.[/box]