Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2007
Julie Jensen’s 2000 drama Two-Headed is not an easy play. It is not easy to perform and it is not easy to watch, but luckily the BTF has cast two of this region’s finest actresses – Corinna May and Diane Prusha – and the end result is a satisfying if harrowing 90 minutes of theatre.
Jensen was born and raised in southern Utah, and while her family is not presently Mormon, they are descended from the original white settlers of that region, who were. The 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in which Mormon zealots slaughtered 127 “emigrants” - men, women, and children migrating westward from Arkansas and Missouri – was a looming specter in her families’ past. When Jensen learned that her great-great-grandmother’s uncle had planned the attack, she wrote this play imagining how that knowledge would have affected her great-great-grandmother’s life.
Here May’s character, the feisty Lavinia, is who Jensen imagines her ancestor to be, while Prusha’s obedient Hettie is her foil. The play consists of five scenes, each set ten years apart, starting in the year of the Massacre when Lavinia and Hettie are ten, and ending in 1897 when they are 50. The Massacre is never far from their thoughts and touches their lives in very tangible ways, as plundered “treasure” from the slaughtered pioneers makes its way through their lives.
Two-Headed is also a strongly feminist play which takes a dim view of the Mormon custom of Plural Marriage. Lavinia and Hettie and their unseen friend Jane are all involved with a man named Ezra. Jane marries him first, but when she contracts rabies Hettie smothers her before that disease reaches its most painful terminal stage, and Lavinia becomes his new wife. Then Hettie becomes the second wife of Lavinia’s father, The Commander, whose involvement in the Massacre is a constant source of pain to Lavinia. There is talk that he is insane, and, if indeed he is, Lavinia certainly shows signs that the condition is hereditary. But she is jealous on her mother’s behalf when her father expects her to share him with Hettie, and furious when, later, Ezra takes as a second wife Hettie’s daughter Tess, Lavinia’s half-sister, who is three months younger than Lavinia and Ezra’s daughter, Janie.
There are graphic descriptions of the Massacre, which it turns out that Lavinia has witnessed, of Jane’s three-day old corpse, of Hettie’s second child who was not born “whole.” There is a scene in which Lavinia catches her hand in a bear trap. None of this is easy to hear or two watch, and director Marc Geller has May and Prusha play every moment of pain and distress.
There are occasional light moment, especially in the first scene where Lavinia and Hettie are children and Hettie begs Lavinia to show her the two-headed calf Lavinia claims is pickled in a vinegar jar in her root cellar. Young Hettie loves two-headed things – she lists all the two-headed animals she has seen thus far – and immediately prays that God will bring even more fascinating miracles into her life. And the women’s steadfast friendship is touching.
The title Two-Headed is apt because, for all their differences and the time they spend apart emotionally and geographically (Hettie and the Commander move east to Connecticut where he is arrested and committed to an Asylum for the Feeble-Minded and Insane after he takes over the pulpit at a Roman Catholic church one Sunday morning to preach the Gospel of Plural Marriage), these two women are forever joined as friends and family. (After Tess marries Ezra Hettie’s grandchildren are Lavinia’s nieces and nephews.)
In a recent interview with Samantha Buck, the transcript of which the BTF provided in its press packets, Jensen is quoted as saying that she chose the title because: “When you have to keep a secret, it’s as if you have two heads, one that can speak, and the other that cannot.” The secrets here all involve the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the story of which unfolds detail by painful detail throughout the show. The Mormons involved in the Massacre were convinced that the United States government was sending an army to attack them, as President James Buchanan had indeed ordered. I am simplifying greatly, but that is what you need to know to understand this play. The BTF provides a brief bit of background on the Massacre, the Sesquicentennial of which will be observed on September 11 of this year, in the program which I recommend you read before the show begins.
All five scenes take place in Lavinia’s backyard in southern Utah. While Costume Designer Dennis Ballard has created a number of bits and pieces – aprons, pinafores, coats, bonnets – that the actresses don to emphasize the changing scenes then hang on an upstage clothesline like ghosts from their past, no effort is made to artificially make May and Prusha look younger or older (in real life they are probably closer to Lavinia and Hettie’s final age of 50). These women must convince us that they are 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 using their bodies, voices, and expressive faces. Two lesser actresses might be overwhelmed by this challenge, but May and Prusha meet it head-on and are largely successful.
Prusha and May are very different actresses who play very well together. Prusha’s Hettie accepts her lot in life with child-like obedience even in her middle-age, while May’s Lavinia takes every blow life deals her and fights back to the point of exhaustion. Prusha’s round frame looks as though it could absorb many more blows than May’s unpadded form.
I did not like Aaron P. Maston’s set for this show. While it used the space on the Unicorn’s thrust stage well, the big tree which dominated the set and the stone walls that marked the performance space from the area where the actresses exchanged costume pieces and props, looked awful, all shiny and plastic-y. This is the desert and if nothing else they would be covered with dust.
But Frank DenDanto III’s warm and subtle lighting evoked the hot desert southwest perfectly and gave the sense of time and place that Maston’s set so desperately lacked.
Geller has wisely staged this play without an intermission. The story needs to be heard in its entirety and there is no doubt that, given the chance, some audience members disturbed by the subject matter would leave. I encourage you not to do your homework before you buy tickets to ANY play and make sure that you know what you are seeing. This is a powerful drama where two fine actresses tell an interesting story of a time, place, and way of life very foreign to most, even though it takes place not so long ago and not so far away. It is fine theatre and well worth an hour and a half of your time.
Two-Headed runs through August 18 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (box office 413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs about 85 minutes with no intermission and is definitely a grown-up play for adults only.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007