Melissa Leilani Larson’s Pilot Program, which closed this last weekend at Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake, is a lovely play, especially in this beautifully acted, directed, and designed production. I say works like ‘beautifully’ and ‘lovely’ despite the fact that the play made me terrifically uncomfortable, and that at dinner afterwards, with my wife, my nephew and his husband and my son, the only two things we could talk about were what a beautiful play it was, and also how uncomfortable it made us.
I love that. I love how a piece of theatre can affect us like that. Ibsen’s A Doll House does that for me, leads to uncomfortable conversations about awkward subjects. A good play should burrow under our skin. It should itch and burn. It should raise more issues than it solves, it should force us to rethink previously held convictions. It should not let go of us afterwards. It’s been four days since I saw Pilot Program. I should have reviewed it earlier, but illness intervened. But I still can’t stop thinking about it.
Three characters, then. We start with Abby and Jake; a nice Mormon married couple. She’s an academic, he works in public relations. They have a good life together, a good marriage. Jake’s a good guy, kind and gentle, nonjudgmental, a supportive and loving spouse. (They were played by April and Mark Fossen, who are, as their last names suggest, likewise married). In addition to teaching and publishing, Abby blogs, and is our window into the world of the play. She addresses the audience directly–she blogs the play for us–and her insights are crucial.
And Abby and Jake have also found themselves unable to have children. And infertility haunts their marriage. Abby tells us that they’ve tried everything–in vitro, adoption–without success.
So: the set, a nice living room in a comfortable and nice-looking home. Abby addresses us; introduces the couple, as wives always do when a couple is asked to speak in Church. A light shift: time passing. And then Jake enters; in his suit; they’ve been somewhere, an event, an appointment. And they can’t even speak. The silence stretched forever: Abby holds herself like she’s been punched, bent over. He appears incapable of speech. Finally, the conversation begins. They’ve been to a meeting, with not just their Stake President, but with an Area Authority. They’ve been asked–called–to participate in a pilot program. They’ve been asked to add another wife to their marriage.
And so, I thought, he’ll be the one to decide, he’ll talk her into it, reluctantly, but in his capacity as patriarch, he’ll make the call. Accept the calling for both of them. And you think, all right, polygamy is certainly about patriarchy, male privilege; that’s where this play is going. And then it doesn’t go there. She’s had a feeling, a warmth, a whispering of the spirit. His inclination is to say ‘no.’ She says ‘yes.’ That was the first time tears came to my eyes, sitting quietly in the darkness.
But she wants to have a say in who the new wife will be, and as it happens, she knows who she wants. Her all-time favorite student, Heather (Susanna Florence Risser), now graduated and a close friend. She loves Heather; thinks of her as a sister, almost. And Heather is still active in the Church, younger than Abby, in her early thirties, a successful professional woman in her own right. One small problem: Heather lives in California, and they live in Salt Lake City. They’re going to have to ask her to move, to uproot her entire life. She’s going to have to ‘move to Utah,’ with everything that implies.
And they invite Heather to visit, and they have this amazingly awkward conversation with her, and Melissa Larson’s gift for comic dialogue gives the scene some lightness. And when finally they get around to it, Heather thinks they’re asking her to be a surrogate mother. And she’s totally fine with it. But that’s not what they’re asking. And of course, when they ask–when they propose–Heather’s reactions are initially what we might expect. She’s appalled, offended, angry. And then a change, and she shocks us, alone in the dark. ‘What if I were to say ‘yes,’ she says. She’s felt something too; she’s felt the Spirit, she thinks. That was the second time I cried.
I cried, because I could see how the rest of the play would unfold. Heather and Jake fall in love. Well, of course they do; they’re married. They work out a ‘marital schedule,’ as I suspect would be needed. He moves out of the bedroom he’s shared with Abby, into his own room, so that each wife can have her own space, her own privacy. And Heather becomes pregnant, and has a baby boy.
And Abby gets to be a child-caring sister-wife (a label she loathes). She gets to be Aunt Abby. And she . . . loses. Loses herself, her identity, Jake’s wife and life-partner, loses that essential intimate exclusivity. And Jake still loves her, still treats her with his usual kindness and attentiveness; of course he does. He’s a good man, a kind man, a good husband. To both his wives.
But we can see it, can’t we. See Abby fold inside herself. See Abby’s distanced misery take her over. We can, not just see her pain, but feel it, ache with her. We’re not remotely distanced, because she’s already allowed us inside her mind and soul; her blog. And there are no good answers for her, not because of the cruelty of the two people who love her most–they love her, both of them do, of course they do, and wouldn’t dream of being cruel. But little Thomas is Heather’s baby. And that changes things.
I don’t think the play has any kind of agenda. Like Larson’s best work, it’s a play about people, about human beings and their lives and choices and deeply rooted private pain. It’s a play that defies easy answers. It’s also, I think, the most stunningly powerful anti-polygamy play I’ve certainly ever seen. It’s a play that says polygamy equals Abby’s pain. And Abby will continue to retreat inside herself, inside her misery. Eventually, she will stop blogging. Because her blog equals life.
So what about the spirit? Both women, in this play, believe themselves to have received a spiritual confirmation of the rightness of this, after all. What did they feel? I don’t know. Part of me thinks that they haven’t actually felt the Spirit, but the stirrings of a essential biological imperative. But I can make just as good a case for the Spirit. I don’t know. I’m just as happy not knowing. That’s the place where the play bothers me the most, and that’s entirely a good thing.
One last thing: I consider Mark Fossen a good friend, and thought his performance was tremendous. What a challenge, playing a decent, ordinary, spiritual man. He was masterful in the role. I also consider Susanna Florence Risser a good friend; one of my favorite actresses, and a student I was proud to teach. Her performance was likewise terrific. But April Fossen was remarkable. Again, a friend, but being friends with her is a bit like being friends with Meryl Streep.
My goodness. What a play, what a production, what a searing examination of a part of Mormon history that most of us would really rather never think about. If you haven’t seen it, buy it; an ebook has been published. It’s just extraordinary.