We often do not think of the stories about pioneers and settlers in the American West in the context of the aftermath of violence and the trauma of coping with the indelible markings of witnessing violent incidents that occurred more frequently than what we might have perceived. We do not imagine the repeated hammering effects such incidents inflicted upon individual psyches, especially if they witnessed or even participated in ambushes, massacres and conflicts where both the indigenous and intruders were pushed to the existential limits of their anger.
However, the actual historical reckonings from events more than 150 years ago have never been reconciled, much less fully acknowledged. The Mormon pioneer myth, for example, has been sanitized and sustained in part by the popular symbolism of the handcart story and of pioneers overcoming natural and human-made crises. Much of what sustains the faith of many Mormons today is based overwhelmingly on the mythology rather than the historical facts and evidence.
A less than triumphant pioneer narrative, yet one that affirms the necessity of historical accuracy, frames the exceptional season-opening production by Pygmalion Theatre Company of Julie Jensen’s Two-Headed, directed by Fran Pruyn.
Every aspect is stellar in a rendering that communicates the poetic streams of Jensen’s writing to maximal effect. The design team of Troy Klee (soundscape), Allen Smith (set), Maddiey Howell (costumes) and Pilar (lighting) achieves concise, compact credibility in the overall ambience. The set features a root cellar and a box elder tree in the back of a rock house, which rightly feeds our imagination about the place of rural southern Utah in the latter half of the 19th century. Most importantly, Haley McCormick Jenkins as Hettie and Brenda Hattingh as Lavinia deliver dynamite performances, particularly in their subtle mannerisms that evolve as they move from the ages of 10 to 50 in 75 minutes.
As mentioned in The Utah Review’s preview, the play opens on the day in 1857 when the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred, when Lavinia and Hettie were 10 years old. A decade after Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, a wagon train of 127 immigrants from Missouri and Arkansas were slaughtered in southern Utah by Mormon zealots. Seven were spared: all children. The specific reference to time anchors the play, as decades pass through each scene and the memory of that horrific event is permanently etched in the minds of both characters.
Twenty years after its premiere and numerous productions in Utah and elsewhere including the U.K., Two-Headed retains the vitality of a play that could be receiving its first production. Jensen’s writing is tight but not terse, while mindful of not letting the exposition bog down the narrative’s succinct tone and dramatic pacing. The dialogue has an omnipresent bite, both in humor and drama. There are off-stage characters that are significant in the stories of Lavinia and Hettie. Their lives are intertwined in ways that would shock us today. However, at the time, they were seen primarily as practical consequences of a newly established Mormon community where few dared leave the faith for fears of being isolated or ostracized with little or no means to sustain their livelihood.
Lavinia’s father, known as ‘The Commander,’ we learn, was a principal planner of the massacre. He takes Hettie as his second wife and they go to Connecticut to preach the ‘restored gospel.” His proselytizing is not welcomed at a Catholic church and the father is institutionalized.
Another off-stage character is Jane, whom Lavinia idolizes with great passion. At the age of 10, Lavinia imagines a different life with Jane. In the second scene (set in 1867, when both women were 20), we learn that Jane married Ezra, who was Hettie’s first choice for a husband. Jane is bitten by a rabid animal and as the young woman suffers the horrors of hydrophobia, Lavinia and Hettie agree to kill her to end her intense misery. Hettie smothers Jane with a pillow. Later, Lavinia marries Ezra, a marriage that is utterly hapless. However, Lavinia bristles with bitter ferocity when Ezra marries Tess, who was the child of Hettie and Lavinia’s father and thereby her half-sister.
Unquestionably, these events repeatedly test the resilience of the friendship of the women and Jensen does not pull punches, as both actors convince us from the play’s earliest moments. At the age of 10, Lavinia is straightforward, never timid and unashamed of her true emotions. Initially, Hettie appears to be Lavinia’s counterpoint in maturity and emotion. Deliberative, pragmatic and accommodating, Hettie, however, can be just as formidable as her friend. Lavinia’s childhood strength is rocked by the trauma that eventually is brought into the open decades later. Lavinia’s veneer is volcanic and bitter to near brutal insensitivity. Hettie, though, intuitively comprehends the complicated forces at work here. This leads to some of the actors’ most extraordinary moments in their performances.
The second scene, when both women are 20 years old in 1867, opens with them working on a quilt that will placed in Jane’s simple casket. Even in the brief silence, the narrative tension is palpable. Lavinia is upset that she could not follow through on Jane’s request to shoot her once the symptoms of hydrophobia overtook her body. Hettie disputes this: “She refused to speak of the possibilities of the disease. That was part of her lovely spirit in the last few days. She maintained a lovely, positive spirit.”
Lavinia rages when Hettie recalls sending her away to spare her from watching Jane’s last moments. Hettie says smothering Jane to end the misery was the “kindest thing” that could have been done. Lavinia grabs Hettie’s face, rebuking her, “It was the most unkindest thing. For the rest of my life, Hettie Edison, every time I see you, every time, I will wonder what it would be like if Jane were in your place instead of you.”
That cruel slap of a line leads to a 10-year silence that is broken in the next scene, in 1877 when both women are 30. This scene generates some of the most emotionally intense moments in the entire play. Hettie, married to her friend’s father, has returned from Connecticut where ‘The Commander’ has been arrested and placed in an asylum after trying to convince Catholics of the worthiness of polygamy. Lavinia laughs derisively, adding, “He told them he was a plig?”
Hettie, fearing that her husband will be imprisoned for the remainder of his life, hopes that he can return to Utah. He previously had been acquitted on charges relating to his involvement in the massacre. Lavinia reminds her that a new trial is about to start: “That was ten years ago. This time they’ll convict. He was solely responsible for the massacre. That’s what we’re to understand, what we’re to believe. Typical Mormon justice. Kill as few Mormons as you can. Kill as many others as possible.”
Jensen’s fictional treatment always is anchored in historical context. In 1877, the only man ever tried for the massacre, John D. Lee, had been acquitted once before, but was retried, convicted and executed. The files from the proceedings have been opened and posted by the Utah State Archives and Record Service, which is seeking volunteers to transcribe the documents. Questions about the church’s direct involvement remain, despite what generations of church leaders have maintained otherwise.
In the 1877 scene, the most stinging moment comes when Hettie has asked for some money from Lavinia for support, a request that she honors begrudgingly. Hettie says, “I thought, when I married your father, I’d finally be the equal of you.” Lavinia responds, “So you are. What exactly what is it you want from me?”
Back in 2001, Claire Bushman, in a Sunstone magazine article about New York City performances of Jensen’s play by the Women’s Project and Productions group, wrote, “Everything has contradictions. How wonderful when the contradictions of the Mormon female experience are turned into art.”
Nearly two decades later after Two-Headed’s premiere, issues of Mormon feminism have expanded and evolved to encompass concerns of the #MeToo movement and sexual abuse along with the long-standing challenges to finding gender parity and equity in church leadership. The church’s institutional culture that prioritizes modesty and patriarchal authority continues to make it difficult for contemporary generations of Mormon women to speak up, especially when many try to cope with traumatic feelings that may be just as intense as what Lavinia experienced or the disappointments that Hettie might have tolerated. The pressure to stay silent, forgive and not rock the boat remains unfortunately as potent as ever.
Jensen’s Two-Headed reminds that the truth, even when it appears in its darkest form, must be spoken in the full light of honesty where its most vulnerable victims are believed and not shamed nor blamed for the trauma they have suffered.
Performances continue through Nov. 23, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. There will be a talkback after the Nov. 17 performance. Tickets are available here and as well including information about the season at the Pygmalion website.