PROVO — Last night The Best of New Play Project premiered at the Provo Theatre. It is a festival of short religious plays, all of which had been produced by New Play Project in the past four years of its existence.
The shabby little theatre exudes idealism and enthusiasm. New Play Project is a place where the energy of youth is put to most effective and fruitful work. Scores of volunteers keep the nonprofit organization alive, as does the talent of the playwrights. In fact, the plays really are the thing. Do not expect intricate sets, sound, or lighting design. It is the drama that takes center stage, and very successfully. In fact, New Play Project boasts two Association for Mormon Letters award-winning plays for Best Drama: Little Happy Secrets (2008) by Melissa Leilani Larson and Prodigal Son (2009) by James Goldberg, which closes the short play festival.
It should be noted that New Play Project’s LDS focus (dare I say mission?) is not what one might assume. These religiously-themed plays are not staged Home Literature, recognizable for amateur construction and pious rhetoric. In fact, some of the plays are not particularly “Mormon,” and the ones that are grapple with that very identification in a very honest, humorous, and sometimes heart-breaking way. LDS membership is not a requirement to enjoy the shows.
The festival opens with Adam and Eve by Davey Morrison (directed by Alex Ungerman). The title characters have just been kicked out of The Garden and are trying to come to terms with their sexuality and difference. The comedy is a take on the familiar trope of male/female dynamics and the difficulty of communication between the sexes at a time when there was only one of each. Becca Ingram as Eve and Trevor Robertson as Adam do a terrific job transitioning from light-hearted banter to serious contemplation of their Fall.
Foxgloves by Matthew Greene (directed by Trevor Robertson) also focuses on a garden. A mother and her teenage daughter sort out their troubled relationship through talk of the “miracle” of growth. The daughter disbelieves God’s role in her blooming flowers until her mother plants foxgloves late in the season only to have them flourish. At its root, the play is also about communication. The characters speak alternately to each other and the audience in monologues that often go unheard.
In veteran playwright Eric Samuelsen’s Gaia (directed by Gideon Burton and Liz Lund), paganism melds very comfortably with Christianity. Gaia, Goddess of the Earth, converses with Lucifer in the pre-existence. It is clear from the beginning that Lucifer is skeptical of The Plan, which requires spirits to enter into humanity where they are prey not only to wild beasts, but also to their own choices. Although Gaia, played by Bianca Morrison Dillard, argues very convincingly for the necessity and profound, if tragic, beauty of The Plan, she is not quite as convincing as Lucifer, played by a very relatable Christopher Gearheart. In the argued dialogue, it could be said that Lucifer “wins.” It is only how the words are spoken and what is implied between the words that reveal his horrific future demise.
Melissa Leilani Larson’s A Burning in the Bosom (directed by Lelagi Klein) could in some ways be seen as a sequel to Gaia in which a young woman named Charity, played on stage by Kendal Romero with voice-over by Rachel Born, confronts her own personal faith and choices. This self-examination takes place in what appears to be a Sacrament Meeting of a college ward. While her fellow-worshipers unselfconsciously go through the motions, singing their hymns while text messaging and haphazardly thumbing through scripture while someone talks at the podium, Charity carries on an internal monologue questioning the reality of the “burning in the bosom.” With a desire to be good and faithful but lacking her own personal testimony, she examines her past actions, choice of shoes, singing ability, and, ultimately, her spiritual worth.
A Prodigal Son by James Goldberg (directed by Davey and Bianca Morrison Dillard), is performed as a staged reading, which in no way detracts from the piece. If anything, the stillness on stage highlights the quality of the writing. It is a story of a son, played by Wyatt Felt, who converts to the LDS Church after meeting a very devout girl named Christy, played by Mari Toronto. To the horror of his father, played by Eric Samuelsen, the son’s conversion is sincere, not prompted by his hope for a future with Christy. The father is a one-time Mormon, who has not only lost his faith but also his wife. In his mind he feels he is now losing his son, and the play focuses on the heartbreak of sacrifice for a greater cause A tragicomedy, the trio of actors deliver equal parts humor and drama brilliantly. It would be worth the seven dollar ticket price to see this piece alone.
The Best of New Play Project is not only an enjoyable way to spend an evening, it is also an opportunity to be a part of generating local drama. There is a sense in the audience of co-creation that comes not only in the shared, recognizable references in the drama, but also in the unification of purpose. The actors, directors, playwrights, and stagehands are clearly there for love of theatre and, presumably, the audience is, too. In theatre history, this sincere love of the art form has very often resulted in something great. New Play Project is on its way.