[I wrote this in January 2002, while on our second stint in Fukuoka, Japan, and still thought just one amped-up boy was more than enough for us. It was published on the AML-list email discussion list, but the archives are no longer available, so I am republishing it here. I am embarrassed to see that I did not mention the passing on August 17, 2001 of Eugene England. England was one of the founders of the Association for Mormon Letters, and one of the great Mormon authors and educators of his time. I got interested in Mormon literature when my wife took his course at BYU, and I read her textbooks and sat in on several of the lectures. I recommend to everyone his essays and reviews, as well as the recent Mormon Stories podcasts about his life.]
It is the New Year, which means it is time again for that hoary old chestnut of a tradition, my Second Annual Mormon Literature Year in Review. I try to cover all of the significant publications and performances of Mormon fiction, theater, and other literature. Although I try to read as much as I can, I rely heavily on the reviews and discussion found on AML-list, Mormon magazines, the Utah newspapers, and other web sites. You should know my biases: I am not very interested in romances or adventure/thrillers, which make up a big chunk of the Mormon fiction world. Historical fiction and speculative fiction usually perk up my interest, as does fiction with contemporary settings. I admire works that intelligently challenge our culture and conventional wisdom, but I have little interest in works antagonistic to Mormonism. I like novels that have a balance of literary flair and an engaging plot.
While the number of Mormon novels continues to increase each year, I have not seen nearly as many excellent novels published in 2001 as in 2000. 2000 was a fruitful year for quality Mormon fiction. There were at least eleven high-quality Mormon-themed novels that year, ten of which were published by specialty Mormon presses, which gave me great hope for the future of the Mormon publishing world. In 2001 there were fewer novels which reached the level of those mentioned above, and Mormon presses published only half of them. So, while there was more quality Mormon literature published nationally, there appears to have been a drop in the number published by Mormon presses.
Clearly the most remarkable Mormon novel of the year was Brady Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint (W. W. Norton). After only one novel Udall shows promise of becoming the nationally renowned Mormon novelist whom I have been waiting for. In Edgar Mint he skillfully demonstrates a distinctive and appealing literary style, an ability to create an absorbing plot, and a wry sense of humor. Udall’s focus is more on the West than on Mormonism per se, but he does deal directly with Mormons in about a quarter of the book, as well as in about a quarter of his published short stories. He approaches Mormonism through the eyes of fringe outsiders, forcing the Mormon reader to view his or her culture in a different perspective. Unfortunately, most Mormon readers probably will be put off by the occasional R-rated situations and language in Udall’s work. But the nature of the material is very different from, say, the stories and plays of Brian Evenson and Neil LaBute. When I read stories by those two authors, which reveal the evil lurking inside all kinds of people, I am impressed by their skill, but I come out feeling dirty, unhappy, and a bit incredulous. Udall’s situations and characters are much more human. For all of their rough edges, I enjoy getting to know these people. Udall shows that there is more to them then their rough edges, that their humanity makes the rough edges trivial. This is unlike Evenson and LaBute’s characters, who might be squeaky clean on the outside, but are full of rottenness on the inside.
More likely to appeal to mainstream Mormon readers, but still of high quality, are new historical fiction novels from Deseret Book by Orson Scott Card and Dean Hughes, established and prolific authors with national reputations. They are the best practitioners of what might be termed “popular Mormon fiction.” That is, their novels are engrossing and easy to digest, but not simplistic. They challenge readers through the themes and conflicts they present rather than with their literary style. Their newest novels represent no major change in their previous styles and themes, which I suppose could be considered a fault. I for one do not mind–I find them consistently entertaining, and I gobbled the new books up as quickly as their earlier ones.
Hughes completed the five volume Children of the Promise series about World War II in 2000, and in 2001 released The Writing on the Wall, the first of a new series. It is set in the 1960s, with the children of the characters from the first series as the main characters. The primary conflicts are inter-familial, which Hughes uses to portray a great diversity of reactions within Mormon society to the social changes of the 1960s. Besides his ability to recreate the flavor of the past, Hughes manages to invest his characters with an amazing amount of emotional heft, without becoming sappy or overraught , the way some popular fiction can be.
Card’s Rebekah is the second in his Women of Genesis biblical fiction series. The main theme of the work is how good people, despite their dedication to the Lord, can still make costly mistakes which hurt the people that they love. Card tends to present all his characters as glib know-it-alls, and I can see how that would annoy some. Card’s blowhards, however, blow intelligently enough to keep them entertaining to me. I found Rebekah to be thoroughly fascinating. While Hughes’ novel is clearly aimed at Latter-day Saints, I have seen Card’s Women of Genesis novels in regular bookstores all around the country.
Card also released Shadow of the Hegemon, the second in the Bean series of books in the Ender’s Game world, early in the year. Shadow of the Hegemon is an exciting military/political thriller, more in the model of Ender’s Game than the philosophical series of books that began with Speaker for the Dead. Unlike Card’s better novels, however, I hardly remembered a thing about it a few months after reading it. So it is an enjoyable puzzle featuring, as Card is want to do, lots of brilliant young people battling it out. In the end, however, it is one of the more superficial, just-for-fun novels Card has produced. Hey, nothing wrong with that.
Marilyn Brown’s The House on the Sound (Cedar Fort), set in Puget Sound around the time of Pearl Harbor, came out late in the year. It was originally written in 1986, and it won the Utah Fine Arts contest that year as an unpublished manuscript. It tells the story of a Mormon family who moves next to a mysterious and dangerous hillbilly-type family. It features an interesting premise, a nice touch of mystery, and great writing. My only complaint is that the pace is quite slow, especially in the beginning. Part of the problem is that the narrator is a little girl, who does not clearly understand much of what is going on, and is largely under the thumb of her strict grandfather. Actually the pace fits the nature of the story well; it goes at the speed that summer days and childhood go for ten-year-olds. Brown beautifully shows us the nature of that life, including all of its limitations. But that choice also limits the dramatic punch of the novel. If Brown had chosen to use additional narrators, such as the parents, or even one of the Barbers, it might have spiced things up, and held my attention a bit more strongly. But I can’t say she made the wrong choice. By keeping a unity of voice, Brown created a wonderful atmosphere, which eventually did pull me in, despite my frustration with wanting to know more of what was going on next door. I guess a bit of frustration as a reader is not the worst thing.
Two books about Mormons from small Western regional presses gained some attention. The first is Curtis Oberhansley and Diane Nelson-Oberhansley’s novel Downwinders: An Atomic Tale. It is a government-conspiracy kind of mystery about the Cold War-era nuclear tests held in Nevada and Utah, and their impact on the health of people in the region. It won the prestigious 2001 Utah Book Award, and was reviewed positively in Sunstone. I have not read it, so I do not know enough about it to say if it should be considered Mormon literature. The authors are not Mormon, so it is a question of whether Mormonism is an important factor in the text.
The second is Gerald Grimmett’s The Ferry Woman (it actually came out in December 2000, but I did not notice it last year, so I am including it here). It is one of three recent novels about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the John D. Lee family. The Salt Lake Tribune’s book reviewer Martin Naparsteck raved about it, declaring it “the best book published in and about the West in 2001”. It was also one of the finalists for the 2001 Utah Book Award. I am always skeptical of Naparsteck’s reviews of Mormon literature, however, as he seems to judge works more on whether they seek out what he sees as the darkness at the core of Mormonism than on their literary merit. Apparently Grimmett’s portrayal of Brigham Young as an evil manipulator fit the bill. It appears, however, to be well written and something more than just an anti-Mormon screed. I await more reviews, or my own experience reading it, to see.
Dave Wolverton (under the pseudonym David Farland) released the third installment in his Runelords fantasy series, Wizardborn. I liked Wolverton’s early novels a lot, so I assume it should be listed as one of the quality novels of the year.
Gordon Laws’ first publication, the short novel My People (BYU Family Studies Center), is about a Mexican-American gang leader who joins the Church. I like how Laws does not take the easy way out. The protagonist’s conversion does not solve all his problems, take him out of his dangerous neighborhood, or expunge his sense of responsibility to his friends who continue to live violent lives. Laws skillfully depicts the grittiness of barrio life, and the struggles of a character caught between two worlds.
Several well-reviewed nationally published young adult novels appeared in 2001. Rebecca Tingle’s debut novel The Edge of the Sword, set in medieval England, received very good reviews, and was placed on the ALA Best Books list. There were two YA novels set in World War II. One was Dean Hughes’s Soldier Boys, about a Utah farm boy and a Hitler Youth German who participate in the Battle of the Bulge. Another was Michael O. Tunnell’s Brothers in Valor, based on the true story of Helmuth Hubener and his friends, three German Mormon boys who produced anti-Nazi materials which resulted in their arrest and Hubener’s execution.
Finally, J. Scott Bronson’s excellent novella The Whipping Boy represents one of the few cases in Mormon literature where literary excellence, emotional heart, and powerful religious themes are found in one work. In fact, it is the most thoroughly religious piece of Mormon fiction I have ever read—not in a soft squishy way, but in a painful exploration of a family’s troubles, which act as an allegory for the atonement. Unfortunately it remains unpublished. Perhaps it should not go in the 2001 list, but hey, it is my list, and besides, Bronson first made it publicly available on request this year. [Bronson, currently appearing on stage as Handel in A Joyful Noise, never did publish the story. I recommend you email him and ask for a copy.]
I want to mention two historical fiction novels published in time for Christmas which have apparently sold very well. They are Gerald Lund’s Come Unto Me, the second volume of his series set in Palestine during Christ’s ministry, and N. C. Allen’s A House Divided, the first in a series set in the Civil War. I think most Mormon readers are well aquatinted with Lund, and know whether they plan to read more from him or not. Allen is more of an unknown quantity to me, and I am interested to see whether the book is any good or not.
Trends: In 2000 there were lots of historical fiction, missionary, and last days novels. In 2001 less last days and missionary novels came out, but historical fiction (especially the hardback, multi-volume series) in particular remained a big part of Mormon fiction. Another trend I noticed this year was the number of novels with British authors and British settings. Of course every year national author Anne Perry releases one of her Victorian murder mysteries, but there were also novels set in the British Isles by Sian Ann Bessey and Anna Jones for Covenant, and Anne Bradshaw for Cedar Fort.
Since the success of Richard Paul Evans, national publishers have picked up several sentimental self-published books by Utah authors. This year, Camron Steve Wright’s Letters for Emily (Premiere Publishing Group/Evans Books), about a grandfather with Alzheimer’s whose poetic letters help to keep a family together, was picked up by Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster) to be published in 2002.
Another interesting trend is novels about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the John D. Lee family. In 2000 there was Marilyn Brown’s The Wine-dark Sea of Grass, in 2001 Gerald Grimmett’s The Ferry Woman, and in January 2002 Judith Freeman’s Red Water was released. It would be interesting for someone to compare the three.
Deseret Book. Deseret sits on top of the roost, with nine novels by many of the field’s most popular authors. I thought 2000 was their best year ever, with excellent books from Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray, Dean Hughes, and Orson Scott Card. 2001 was about the same, with new books from Hughes and Card, and one from Young and Gray scheduled to appear early in 2002. Gerald Lund’s Come Unto Me was their best seller of the year. Robert Farrell Smith (Captain Matrimony) is very funny, and Sierra St. James (AKA Janette Rallison) (Masquerade) and Jack Weyland (Megan) do what they do quite well. Still, Young and Gray’s Standing on the Promises series is the only really adventuresome thing they have done so far. I’d like to see some more. Bookcraft, Shadow Mountain, and Eagle Gate are Deseret Book imprints.
Covenant Communications. Covenant published nineteen Mormon novels in 2001, by far the largest number of any publisher. They have developed a stable of at least eight authors who produce a novel a year, and they also gave several authors their first chances in 2001. In 2000 they first entered the “multi-volume hardcover historical fiction” arena, which heretofore has been dominated by Deseret, with the first volume of David Wooley’s Book of Mormon series. They are trying again in 2001 with N. C. Allen’s Civil War series. Allen has published several novels for Covenant under her full name, Nancy Campbell Allen. Maybe they thought that having a female author’s name on a Civil War novel would keep sales down. Otherwise, Covenant published mostly romances and thrillers, which I do not care for much, and so have not read. Jeff Needle said Jeni Grossman’s Beneath the Surface was, “One of the best popular-level Mormon books I’ve ever read. Extraordinarily well written, suspenseful, often surprising and deeply heart-felt.” I also saw good reviews of Jeffrey Savage’s technological thriller Cutting Edge, Lisa McKendrick’s young adult novel On a Whim, and Anita Stansfield’s romance Where the Heart Leads.
Cedar Fort. With thirteen novels, Cedar Fort has passed up Deseret for second in terms of the number of fiction books published in the year. Because it is an “author participation” publisher, which expects many of the authors to help pay for publication costs, the quality of work it produces is suspect. However, in 2000 three of its novels, by Marilyn Brown, Alan Mitchell, and Dory Peters, received strong reviews, which gave me reason to hope for more of the same. I read two Cedar Fort novels, Frank Leach’s conversion story Mission Accomplished which is a light, fun conversion tale, and Vickie Mason Randalls’ last days drama Red Moon Rising, which suffers from turgid prose and a lifeless plot. I have heard some good things about David Turrill’s Bridge to Eden and A. Dean Byrd’s Walking in Winter. Julie Wright’s To Catch a Falling Star won an in-house award for fiction. A small nucleus of stable writers is beginning to form, including Anne Bradshaw, Chad Daybell, and Lisa J. Peck. Bonneville, Salt, and Council Press are all Cedar Fort imprints.
Signature Books. Signature usually publishes only a small amount of fiction each year, but what it does publish tends to be of higher quality than the average of other publishers. In 2001 its output was particularly small, just one short story collection by Lewis Horne and a collection of essays, Madame Ridiculous and Lady Sublime, by Eloise Bell. In 2002, however, it promises to release novels by Margaret Blair Young, Paul Edwards, Jack Harrell (the one that won the Marilyn Brown contest a couple of years ago), and Linda Hoffman Kimball.
Excel Entertainment. Excel is primarily a music label and a film distributor. It did start to do a small amount of book publishing in 2001, however. Most notable was Geoffrey Card’s novelization of God’s Army, which I found to be not bad considering that it had to stick closely to the film script, which, having seen the movie already, takes away all the tension of reading a novel for me. There are two more forthcoming novels based on the movie’s characters [that never happened]. Excel also handled the distribution of Gordon Laws’ fine “cinematic novel” My People, which was published by the BYU Family Studies Center. It is also about missionaries in Los Angeles, although it is told mostly from the POV of the investigator and his friends, rather than the missionaries.
Cornerstone. I had high hopes for Cornerstone after they published notable works by Eric Samuelsen and Linda Adams in 2000. The collapse of a proposed buyout of another Mormon publisher, Horizon, early in 2001 apparently was a drain on the time and recourses of both companies. Cornerstone did release one new fiction book in December, a collection of short stories by Jack Weyland. Horizon has not published any significant fiction for years, so it is not a surprise that they didn’t in 2001 either.
Others. Granite has floated at the bottom of the Mormon publishing world for several years now, putting out a couple of books of little distinction each year. They published five this year. Gibbs Smith published its annual “Fable for Our Time” by Carol Lynn Pearson. Brent Rowley published two novels under his own “Golden Wing” label.
Mormon short stories can be divided into three groups, literary fiction, speculative fiction, and youth/young adult fiction. There were two and a half short story collections published by Mormon authors this year, representing each of these groups.
Signature published The House of James by Lewis Horne, their second collection by Horne, who recently retired from the University of Saskatchewan. Naparastack in the Salt Lake Tribune gave it a positive review, saying the nine stories are “about extraordinarily ordinary people, mostly Mormons in Utah and nearby states in the 1950′s and ’60s, and in the process presents a clear and credible portrait of a rarefied culture which has now largely disappeared.” Except for this review, the collection seems to have been largely ignored (as was his previous collection, which I have often seen in Utah used book stores). A month after its publication I could not find it at Sam Weller’s Zion Books, which is known for having one of the most complete collections of Mormon books around. I liked his story that appeared in Dialogue this year, so I ordered the book from Signature’s web page. Once I received it, however, I promptly lost it. Maybe it is cursed.
The second collection is by the popular young adult author Jack Weyland, Forever (Cornerstone). It is made up almost completely of previously uncollected stories, presumably many of which previously appeared in The New Era. Richard Hopkins says that Cornerstone plans to publish more collections of Weyland’s stories in the future. Unfortunately for the youth/young adult wing of short story writers, The New Era, the only major magazine that published such stories, is no longer going to publish fiction.
The “half” a collection is speculative fiction author M. Shayne Bell’s e-book How We Play the Game in Salt Lake City and other stories. I am not ready to start including e-books in general in this review, but because Bell’s collection was a finalist for the 2001 Utah Book Award, it seems to be more than something just available from an internet page. Bell, of course, is a very prolific short story author, and I look forward to having seventeen of his best stories in one place. Now I can throw away all those copies of stories from the anthologies and magazines I have chased down over the last couple of years. Bell continued to be as busy as ever, he was able to place five new stories and two older stories in magazines and anthologies this year.
The most literarily prestigious appearance of a short story by a Mormon author was Neil LaBute’s story “Layover,” which appeared in the New Yorker in May. It is LaBute’s first piece of prose fiction that I know of, and pretty much resembled his play scripts—a confident person preying on the weaknesses of another. I did not care for it. Brian Evenson and Cass McNally also had stories which appeared in literary journals.
Besides Shayne Bell, speculative fiction authors Lee Allred, Susan J. Kroupa, Franklin Thatcher, and Dave Wolverton published stories in non-Mormon magazines or anthologies. One, Bones of the World: Tales from Time’s End, edited by Bruce Holland Rogers, contained three stories by LDS writers.
Dialogue and Sunstone, Mormon-doms’ two most prominent academic and cultural magazines, appear to be back in shape after being down for about a year over 1999-2000 because of changes in their editorial staffs. Neither published a full schedule of issues for the year, but that is nothing new for either one. Dialogue published two issues, both labeled “2000”, because of the editors’ determination to catch up with their schedule. Sunstone published three issues. Both magazines also have new issues out in January 2002. Over the year Dialogue published four short stories and Sunstone published only two, although Sunstone also published a long play script.
The smaller literary journal Irreantum, edited by Chris Bigelow, is doing an excellent job in providing quality LDS literature for those whose appetite is not sated by that provided by the two more established magazines. It is in its third year of existence. Irreantum came out with three issues in 2001, which included eight new short stories, four republished stories, and two excerpts from new novels. I felt that the quality of stories was fairly good, with Helynne Hollstein Hansen’s “The Chastening” my favorite. The best and the worst for me was the Winter 2000-2001 speculative fiction issue. The two interviews with Dave Wolverton and Mary Clyde were both fascinating, especially as they highlighted the two writers’ diametrically opposite approach to writing. I also enjoyed the essay by Lee Allred on writing about evil. The three republished stories by Allred, Bell, and Duncan, went from excellent to good. Unfortunately all three new stories, by Asplund, Thornley Read, and Gifford, ranged from unremarkable to poor.
My favorite stories of the year are: Todd Robert Peterson’s “The Charity of Silence,” Lewis Horne’s “The By-pass,” (both from Dialogue 33:1, Spring 2000), Mari E. Jorgensen’s “He Finishes With a Flourish” (Sunstone, April 2001), and Helynne Hollstein Hansen’s “The Chastening” (Irreantum, Spring 2001). I should note, however, that I have only read the stories from Dialogue, Sunstone, and Irreantum, and the LaBute story. I have not read anything from the three new collections, or anything else from the non-Mormon magazines and anthologies.
Although I have read a fair amount of 2001’s Mormon novels and short stories, I have not seen a single play, living as I do in Japan. So for the plays I am relying solely on newspaper notices, other people’s reviews, and AML-list scuttlebutt.
Although there were fewer main stage productions of plays written by Mormon artists in 2001 than in 2000, the large number informal productions and staged readings which occurred and the development of a number of theatrical institutions gives me great hope for the future of Mormon drama. An especially interesting development is that New York City has become a hub of Mormon drama outside of Utah.
As always, the epicenter of Mormon drama is Utah County, particularly since the BYU theater department has for many years now acted both as a training ground for new talent and a performance venue for established artists. There is usually one main stage production of a Mormon play each year at BYU, and this year it was a revival of Susan Howe’s 1987 play Burdens of Earth, about Joseph Smith and his companions at Liberty Jail. I have read Howe’s script several times and it never fails to move me. Eric Snider and Robert Paxton have commented, however, that the play’s dramatic structure has weaknesses which lessen its impact onstage.
Besides Howe’s play, there were many smaller-scale student productions and staged readings of Mormon plays at BYU in 2001. These included productions of graduate student Melissa Larson’s Lady in Waiting, about one of Anne Boleyn’s servants, Mormon drama veteran Eric Samuelsen’s new play What Really Happened, and three readings at the annual Writers/Directors/Actors Workshop.
One of the reasons that there were so many productions of Mormon plays in Utah County in 1999 and 2000 was because Marvin Payne was the artistic director of the Little London Theater in Pleasant Grove in those years, and scheduled a significant number of new and old Mormon plays. In 2001, however, the job was given to someone else, and as a result there were no Mormon plays produced there in 2001. Although the theater continued to bring in large crowds and receive critical praise, the owners recently announced they were closing it down. Also the Provo Theater Company, which had an even stronger critical reputation and had produced a small number of Mormon plays, closed down indefinitely in 2001.
Bill and Marilyn Brown’s Villa and Little Brown Theaters in Springville have stepped into the breach to become Utah Valley’s most frequent sites for Mormon drama in 2001. Certainly the most significant work performed there last year was J. Scott Bronson’s Stones, a pair of one-acts about the Isaac and Christ and their families. The play received glowing reviews from several AML-list members and from Eric Snider in the Daily Herald for both the strength of the script and the actors’ powerful performances. This is the 2001 play I regret missing the most.
The Villa was also host to performance of James Arrington’s J. Golden, and to a reading of BYU student Nathan F. Christiansen’s musical Heart of the Heartland, which was the winner of the Browns’ 2001 VIP Arts drama contest.
In May-June the Playwrights Circle, an organization founded in 1998 by James Arrington for the support and improvement of Mormon playwrights, held its Summer Festival at UVSC, where Arrington is on the faculty. The festival featured a series of one-act science fiction plays by Arrington, Bronson, Thom Duncan, and Shannyn Walters, and a performance of Arrington’s J. Golden staring Marvin Payne. UVSC also hosted a benefit performance of Steven Kapp Perry’s musical Polly.
BYU professor Eric Samuelsen, probably the most prolific Mormon playwright, did not have any main stage productions in 2001, but did have as many as four works which appeared in “under the radar” performances and readings, as well as a script published in a magazine. The above-mentioned student production of What Really Happened, a disturbing story about a couple’s evil acts, received excellent reviews from several AML-list members who attended it. An excerpt of his new farce A Very Good Impression, about BYU professor and his graduate students trying to impress each other, was performed at the Handcart Company gala. The drama Peculiarities was to be performed at the Playwrights Circle Summer Festival, but I believe it was cancelled. A drama for young audiences, Slaying the Greeble, was read at the BYU Writers/Directors/Actors Workshop near the end of the year. Finally, the script of his 1997 play Gadiation, the winner of the 1997 AML drama prize, was published in the July 2001 issue of Sunstone. I have wanted to see the play for years, especially after Gideon Burton, in an article in the Fall 1999 issue of Dialogue, used it as a model of great Mormon literature in that it successfully blended strong amounts of heart, mind, and sprit. Now that I have read it, I agree. Samuelsen’s ability to portray contemporary characters in difficult moral quandaries is world class, and the fact that he almost always uses Mormon characters makes him among the most fascinating Mormon authors presently in the business, whether in prose or drama. For years Sunstone has had a policy of publishing about a play script a year, so it is very good to see it back in business publishing quality Mormon work.
Speaking of AML drama award winners, the Genesis Group continued to perform Margaret Blair Young’s 2000 winner I Am Jane at a variety of venues in 2001, including BYU and a stake center in Bountiful.
Salt Lake County, where theater is expected to be a bit edgier, was also the scene of a few Mormon plays. Besides its annual farce Saturday’s Voyeur, the Salt Lake Acting Company sponsored a reading by its playwright-in-residence, Julie Jensen, of her play Wait!, about a small-town Utah theater. New York actor and former Young Ambassador Steven Fales gave a reading of his one-man play Confessions of a Mormon Boy, about his experiences as a homosexual and a Mormon, at the Salt Lake City Sunstone symposium, and performed it at the Leona Wagner Theatre. Playwright and lyricist Pat Davis revived her 1996 Utah Centennial musical Bands of Iron, Rings of Gold (music by Kenneth Plain) at the SLCC Grand Theatre, where she is the artistic director. Finally Tim Slover, the award-winning author of historical plays, lead a reading of a new work, Hancock County, with the New Renaissance Theatre Company. The play, which dramatizes the real trial of five men accused of participating in the killing of Joseph and Hyrum, was originally scheduled to premiere at BYU in 2001, but was postponed to February 2002. I did not see reviews of any of these works.
As far as international attention, Neil LaBute’s newest play, The Shape of Things certainly went far beyond all the other works I mention, although it contained no references to Mormons or Mormonism. It primarily tells the story of a female art student who successfully reconstructs the entire life of a young man, whom she ultimately and cruelly presents to her faculty as her graduate thesis. It premiered at a prestigious Off-West End London theater early in the year, where it received almost universal praise in the British press, as well as from our reporter on the scene, Eric Samuelsen. It received a much less friendly reception when it opened at the Off-Broadway Promenade Theater soon after September 11th, perhaps because the critics and the public were less in the mood for misanthropy at the time. Both the New York Times and the New Yorker gave it poor reviews, while two reviewers in the New York Post were split in their opinions. Ultimately its run was not extended beyond its planned December closing date. [LaBute later made it into a very good movie.]
Besides LaBute, there has been a growing amount of plays by Mormon authors in New York City. The main source of this action is the Handcart Ensemble, a small off-off-Broadway theater company formed in 1999 by a group of mostly former BYU students. They appear to specialize in the restaging of largely forgotten classical works, adapted by J. Scott Reynolds, the group’s artistic director. In November they staged their first original work, Reynolds’ verse play David and Bathsheba, which received some good notices and positive reaction from a friend of mine who saw it. The group also held a benefit “gala” in May, with original theatrical readings, music, and films produced by Mormon artists.
Another New York City artist creating original theater is Matt Toronto, who read two new works this year at the Theatre Studio, Mysterious Ways, about the relationship between a pair of missionaries and their investigator, and a one-man play titled Before Your Eyes. An AML-list member who saw the former play spoke very highly of it.
[I did not review the films in 2001, so I wrote up this summary in 2011.] This was Year Two of the Mormon Film Renaissance, after the 2000 release of God’s Army. 2001 saw the release of two major Mormon-made films. Brigham City, written and directed by Richard Dutcher, artistically built on the solid work of God’s Army, giving hope that there could be an economically viable Mormon arts movement. It got an average “B” rating from the Utah newspaper critics, and a 70% fresh rating from the Rotten Tomatoes reviewers, although I and many other artistically-minded Mormons were very impressed. It did not do as well at the box office, making only $905,000, compared to the $2.6 million dollars made by God’s Army the year before. Dutcher would not release his next movie, States of Grace, until 2005.
The Other Side of Heaven, written and directed by Mitch Davis, and produced by Hollywood big-shot Gerald Molen, had a limited release in the West in December 2001, and later had a national release in spring 2002. It got mediocre B-/C+ reviews from the Utah newspaper critics and very poor 29% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Its seven million dollar budget was the second largest ever for a Mormon movie (The Work and the Glory a few years later cost slightly more), and while the $4,720,000 it made at the box office were the largest numbers ever seen in the history of Mormon films, it did not make up its costs. It has probably since eked out a profit through DVD and cable television sales. While clearly about Mormon missionaries, to widen its appeal the film never mentions the Church’s name, and showed a missionary praying for a drowning victim, rather than blessing him. While the film certainly had flaws, I thought it was better than its reviews. Davis has since made one more movie, A House Divided, which had a limited release in 2007. It was about Jewish-Palestinian relations.