Saturday, April 18, 2015

Melissa Leilani Larson's PILOT PROGRAM

I am a 37 year old active LDS woman. I am getting married in 3 weeks, but I have identified as single for most of my life. I have known Melissa Leilani Larson since my senior year at BYU. I recall long car rides while we discussed stories that later became flesh and blood plays. Her mind is always working. I played a part in one of her productions in 2002 now entitled Standing Still Standing. Later our paths crossed again when she came to Iowa to go to graduate school. I left Iowa for graduate school in Virginia, and she took my place in the same house. If you compare our facebook friends--between BYU, Iowa, and Salt Lake City in general--we have about 153 mutual friends. I think the only person who rivals that is our other mutual friend Lesley Larsen Nesbit who shares 193 friends with both of us. (We went to BYU and graduate school together.Tangent: Lesley Larsen needs to come to Utah to do a Melissa Leilani Larson play with me so I can experience true artistic bliss.)

My experience listening to a Melissa Leilani Larson production is like coming home to my innermost thoughts. We share such a similar trajectory in life that her honest projection of emotion and inner monologue just feels like breathing through my own heart. The honesty and vulnerability drips off of each character. You fear with them, you giggle in anticipation of the next awkward moment. You sigh with them, and every member of the audience sits on the edge of their seat waiting not for gunfire or scandal--but for words.

She does not write in order to create a balanced and shapely production. She doesn't concern herself with comedic scene, followed by dramatic scene, followed by action in order to provide a nuanced active theatrical piece. In a world of formulaic and rote episodes that surprise us 12 minutes in, make us think 29 minutes in and throw us a twist at 42 minutes--her writing reflects an integrity that practitioners lose in order to make a dollar and artists covet.

Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan-B Theatre Company is smart enough to recognize and encourage artists in Utah. He cultivates varying viewpoints and inspires actors and writers to challenge audiences.

Susanna Florence Risser plays Heather Gonzales, a single LDS woman who receives a most interesting proposition from Jacob and Abigail--played by April and Mark Fossen. I remember seeing Susanna play in a show Lesley Larsen directed back at BYU and being absolutely intrigued with her gifts. She went on to get her MFA and has 4 delicious children. (I haven't tried to eat them, but their pictures are delightful.) My first experience getting to know the talents of April Fossen was watching her play Barbara in August: Osage County directed by Mark Fossen. The production lacked the beautiful lighting and set that Pilot Program has--but the truth in storytelling made me a fan of both of their work.

Watching Abigail and Jacob return from a meeting with their church leaders in the first scene--feeling the tension and the awkwardness. Sensing the love within that tension. How do you create such a collection of feelings in a pause?

There are some friends who don't understand why I am an active Latter-Day Saint woman. These friends will show me shocking historical facts or present stories of people who have suffered in the religion. While I mourn with those that mourn, I cannot change the experiences of my heart. I got to the point where I would just say to these friends, "Baby with the bath water." At the same time, I must respect the journey of their heart and so I don't feel malice or judgment towards friends who have ultimately decided to leave the LDS church. I trust that they are following their heart.

As I have decided to get married, I think of all the things that will go wrong. I think of the difficulties I will face learning to live with a man. I know that my easy breesy life as a single woman with a dog is going to be complicated, annoying, and messy. But I have a testimony in this life. I believe that I came here to learn and to grow and I choose this path because I love him (of course) and because I need to grow in different ways. I am not naive. I know that it will be difficult. The gospel is centered on two opposing maxims: We came here to earth to learn how to exercise our agency--and Be obedient to God. Understanding sometimes doesn't come until after we make the choice to follow God. God will whisper things we should choose--and sometimes the choices are not for our happiness--but for our growth. The choices lead to sacrifice and mourning. But the paths help to refine us and help us to become better, stronger people. Saints, if you will.

Abigail is a brilliant, liberal, cynical woman who loves her husband. And she makes a choice that leads to a multitude of consequences. One of which is growth. Happiness is good--but it isn't why we're here. Happiness is something we find in the midst of our suffering. There are miracles of peace to be found as we are swallowed in the consequences of choosing to become. (Lest you fear for my mental health, I am a particularly happy person. I just don't believe in happiness guarantees.)

Written in her own pen, Melissa Leilani Larson shares Abigail's thoughts as she reflects on her answer from God.

As saints who cannot deny the integrity of our hearts, we often find ourselves hoisted by our own petards. We are caught in a faith that demands we choose paths of pain, mixed with occasional bursts of speed and beautiful vistas. Missionaries are so young and they so enjoy sharing that choosing to be a saint is about choosing a life of happiness and joy--but that's just their own naive hope.

I choose to be a Latter-Day Saint because I have felt that blossom of warmth.

Because of her integrity, Larson shares more than just the blossoms of warmth--she shares the doubts and the pain that follow the decision. This is not a feel good propaganda piece. And those on either side of the LDS fence might squirm in the ambiguity of the story. But those of us who honor truth in all of its uncomfortable terms feel a kinship to the experiences we see unfolding. All around me, audience members let tears just fall down their cheeks as they heard their own thoughts expressed with so much vulnerability and truth.

Truth is divine. Truth is cleansing. Anyone who claims that being LDS is the happiest thing in the world is lying to you. Anyone who claims that since leaving the LDS church they haven't felt a single regret is lying to you. This play is a story where the writer honors the truth of the characters' experiences and offends and inspires audience members of all faiths and walks of life.

I'd tell you to go and see the play, but its sold out.

I bet you could get a ticket if you put yourself on the waiting list though. It's worth the effort.


Anonymous said...

Not lying, Eve, not lying. Just a different perspective of eternal truth. We can't experience powerful eternal happiness without overcoming powerful mortal pain. Christ could not and we cannot. We are just so blessed to have His strength, knowledge and power to carry us through trials and to places we could never reach on our own. His love is a force we can't imagine or comprehend or describe with our limited mortal means. But it is there. It is truly there. And one day He will dry our tears, and we will begin to feel what happiness really is.
--Tiffany E

Anonymous said...

Gosh I love your blog! You are such a wise, wonderful woman! Just updated my blog for the first time in a long time and would love some of your thoughts. I respect you, Eve.

Eve said...

I would love to read your blog! Thank you!

Melissa said...

I just got around to reading this post...which is unusual because I usually read your posts as soon as you publish them. :D

Anyway, as always, very good, thoughtful, insightful...enjoyed it! You are right, you are in for an adventure! An adventure that will sometimes be the most trying thing ever, an adventure that sometimes you will wonder why you made it, but hopefully most of the time it will be an adventure where you look at your spouse and wonder how on earth you got the joyful experience of having them ask you and choose you to be their special person, and you did the same. Marriage is work, and it is hard, but it is so wonderful when done right.