The 2002 third annual mostly uniformed reviewer’s Mormon literature year in review.
Although I read a few novels in 2002, I greatly rely on newspaper reviews, AML-list reviews, and general scuttlebutt for this overview. Generally I believe the world of Mormon literature is moving in a healthy direction. There are not nearly enough adventurous and original works being produced, but there are a few, and I get the impression that the general writing level of the authors producing popular inspirational and/or escapist works is improving. Certainly there is lots of dreck, but that is true of all areas of the publishing world. If consumers of Mormon literature want to find quality material, it is out there waiting for them.
Nationally published novels
I think the most interesting trend of recent years has been the large number of Mormon authors writing excellent novels in the national juvenile and young adult categories. In 2002 thirteen such novels were published, which is surely a record, and almost all of them garnered strongly positive reviews. Among the most well received were two pieces of historical fiction about young women in the early days of the Church; A. E. (Ann) Cannon’s Charlotte’s Rose and Kimberly Heuston’s The Shakeress. Reviewers praised both authors for their careful attention to historical details and straight-forward approach toward describing religious faith. Heuston’s novel is an internal journey of a girl searching for God, going from the Baptists to the Shakers and ultimately to the Mormons. Cannon’s novel is a more dynamic story about a Welsh girl who becomes a baby’s surrogate mother while on the pioneer trail. It was given the 2002 AML Young Adult Novel Award and a Utah Book Award. It is exciting to see two such high quality juvenile novels which both incorporate religious faith among their main themes.
There were four serious young adult novels by new authors, all of which dealt with themes like death and dysfunctional families, and all of which received significant praise. Chris Crowe’s Mississippi Trial, 1955, about the murder of Emmett Till, and Ron Woods’ The Hero, about a tragic rafting accident, are both about boys coming of age in the 1950s, and both are the debut national novels by the respective authors. They received excellent notices, particularly in their ability to flesh out characters. Crowe’s novel was given the 2002 AML Novel Award. Randall Wright also made his debut with A Hundred Days From Home, about a boy coming to terms with the death of his son, set in the Arizona desert in 1961. The School Library Journal wrote, “Wright deftly evokes the prickly love that links and estranges adolescent boys and their fathers and has a marvelous way-almost Tennysonian-of using the landscape as an echo of Elam’s states of mind.” Finally Laura Torres’s second novel, Crossing Montana, is about a teenage girl who through flashbacks realizes the nature of her dysfunctional and mentally ill family. In a starred review, Booklist wrote, “Torres’ characters are drawn with spare realism . . . the brave, desperate, present-tense narrative tells the truth and doesn’t let you go.
Other middle grade or young adult novels which were published nationally in 2002 and received good reviews were Martine Leavitt’s fantasy The Dollmage (received the AML Young Adult Honorable Mention award), Lael Littke’s mystery Lake of Secrets, Kimberley Griffiths Little’s Native American/time-travel story The Last Snake Runner, Janette Rallison’s funny baseball and romance novel Playing the Field, Carol Lynch Williams’ humorous mother-daughter tale A Mother to Embarrass Me, and Thelma Hatch Wyss’ light teenage-runaway adventure Ten Miles from Winnemucca. This is an amazing flowering of talent, which I think those of us who read Mormon literature are not well enough aware. John Bennion has done some excellent work analyzing Mormon young adult novels, a recent example being his essay “Austen’s Granddaughter: Louise Plummer Re(de)fines Romance,” which appeared in The English Journal.
Two well-regarded “literary” authors with Mormon connections, Judith Freeman and Brian Evenson, published novels in 2002. Freeman’s novel Red Water, a work of historical fiction about the John D. Lee family told through the eyes of three of his wives, probably was the Mormon novel which received the most national attention in 2002. Utah librarian Gail McCulloch called it “an achingly beautiful and eloquent story of friendship and faith,” while The New York Review of Books said it “upends the Mormon order, in which men are privileged and women passive.” Evenson’s novel Dark Property is a gruesome tale of multiple murders and religious fanaticism, set in a post-apocalyptic world. One reviewer commented on Evenson’s amazing ability to use such “dulcet language” about such horrifying topics. [In recent years readers have noted how similar Dark Property is to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which would be published five years later].
Two literary novels which look at Utah/Mormon society through the eyes of non-Mormons trying to fit in, as well as painfully dysfunctional family dynamics, are John Fulton’s More Than Enough and Nicole Stansbury’s Places to Look for a Mother. Both of the books are by non-Mormons, and both received strong reviews. Salt Lake Tribune reviewer Martin Naparastack listed them among his “2002 Best of the West.”
Among more popular fiction, several Mormon authors have found success with sentimental family-centered novels. Many of these authors first came to the attention of national publishers through their self-published works. Richard Paul Evans, the most famous of the group, found himself in the middle of a small Utah publicity storm when Deseret Book refused to stock his newest novel, The Last Promise because they felt it implied an adulterous relationship between two characters. Whatever its moral content, reviewers consistently dismissed the novel as “wooden and clichéd”. One compared Evans’ writing style to a Williams-Sonoma catalogue. Cameron Wright’s 2001 self-published tearjerker Letters for Emily, about an elderly man leaving messages to his disintegrating family was republished by Simon and Schuster, elevating him to the big time. James Michael Pratt, whose Paradise Bay has received reviews even worse than Evans, also belongs in this category.
In a more encouraging direction, Kenny Kemp’s novel The Welcoming Door is the first in a series of historical fiction about Christ as a young journeyman carpenter, observing and participating in events which he would turn into three of his future parables. Some people are nervous about novels which fictionalize important historical characters, so Kemp shows considerable bravery by inventing scenes and imagining the thoughts of a young Jesus. What makes Kemp’s work so interesting is that rather than portraying Jesus as a teacher, his role in most of the gospels, he creates scenes in which he is a laborer or an older sibling, and thus imagines answers to the “What would Jesus do?” question in a variety of workaday situations to which a reader might relate. He creates a Jesus who is both endearingly mortal (he playfully teases his younger brothers and feels frustration during difficult jobs), but is also inspiringly wise and kind, befitting a Son of God preparing for his ministry. Also, Kemp uses the parables as jumping-off points to create three increasingly complex stories, imagining full and surprising back-story lives for characters introduced only briefly in the scriptures. Kemp succeeds at creating an “inspirational” book which I think will have wide appeal, without resorting to cheap emotional fireworks.
Orson Scott Card released one novel this year, Shadow Puppets, the third in his popular Bean series. I have found the series to be as exciting as any of Card’s pervious works, but not as memorable. Speculative fiction authors Tracy Hickman, Rebecca Lickess, and Peter Warinner also published novels in 2002. Popular mystery author Anne Perry published installments of both her Pitt and Monk series over the course of the year.
Mormon market novels
The major Mormon publishers (Covenant,Deseret, Cedar Fort, Signature, and Granite) produced a record number of literature titles in 2002, 59. This was largely due to a significant increase in the number produced by Covenant and Cedar Fort. Deseret Book, Signature and Granite published about the same amount as they did in 2001.
Of the many authors publishing for the LDS market over the last few years, I feel Margaret Blair Young has created the most significant body of work. She seems to specialize in pain, probing great hardships and suffering in nearly all of her novels. She also pulled off the nice feat of having works published by Deseret Book and Signature in the same year (last achieved by Ann Cannon in 1997). In both books she goes to the edge of Mormon cultural respectability, ultimately affirming faith in the Gospel and allegiance to the Church, but also exploring the pain and doubt felt by Mormons who have been cut to the core by other Mormons or God Himself. I found Bound for Canaan, the second volume of the Standing on the Promises series co-written with Darius Gray, to be among the most achingly beautiful works I have read in years. In their descriptions of the lives of black Church members during the Church’s frontier period, Young and Gray put together a kaleidoscope of characters and settings, jumping back and forth between at least 10 reoccurring point-of-views, up from the 4 or so in the first volume. Rather than making the story disjointed, however, the multiple voices become a symphony of faith and pain which I haven’t been able to get out of my head nearly a year after I read it. Her other novel, Heresies of Nature, is also a study of the anguish of believers, this time about the shattering impact of multiple sclerosis on a woman and her family. Several members of the family turn to self-destructive behaviors in response to the pressure and despair, and the husband, worn down by the decade-long sacrifices of caring for an invalid wife, turns against God and violates his temple covenants. In the end the family members repent of their rebellions, and pin their psyches on God-centered hope. It is a tattered kind of hope, which does not erase the pain of the disease and the sins, but does keep the family together.
Two other 2002 novels published for the Mormon market I can whole-heartedly recommend are Linda Hoffman Kimball’s The Marketing of Sister B (Signature) and Dean Hughes’ Troubled Waters (Deseret). Kimball, in a gentle but very funny farce, tells the story of a woman catapulted to national fame by the reaction to a perfume she created for a Relief Society event. Since Kathryn Kidd has gone several years without releasing a novel, Kimball may take her place as the Mormon novelist who can best make me laugh without leaving a saccharine aftertaste. Troubled Waters is the seventh novel overall in the saga of the Thomas family, now into the mid-1960s. Hughes is one of our best storytellers, and he is one of the few writers of mainstream Mormon historical fiction who asks his readers to look at the difficult parts of our history as well as the heroic. His picture of the lifestyles, experiences, and world-views of Mormons rejects the commonly-held monolithic stereotypes, displaying instead a fascinating kaleidoscope of differences, despite a common belief in Christ and his Prophets. I am impressed that he can get me to care equally about such a wide range of characters.
Deseret Books released eight literary works in 2002, down slightly from their total of nine in 2001. For the second year in a row they introduced no new authors. I have heard rumors that the staff was reduced considerably and several book contracts were cancelled early in the year, so it appears the company went through some restructuring. Still, with the talent they have under contract,Deseretmust be considered the strongest publisher in the LDS market. Young and Gray, Hughes, and Card are all in the middle of producing multi-volume series for the publisher. With them, the company has managed to gather some of the best storytellers in LDS literature, people who can write “faithful” fiction while still challenging their readers. Add to that Gerald Lund, the bestselling author in the field, Jack Weyland, the best selling juvenile author in the field, Robert Farrell Smith, a very talented humorist, and Tom Plummer, an excellent essayist, and you have a strong collection of authorial talent. I would like to see them take the success and public trust they have developed and use it to push forward in the publication of adventuresome works. The recent conservative retrenchment in the bookselling division signaled by the Richard Evans controversy is troubling, but it is yet to be seen whether the new policy will simply act to exclude works with overly explicit romantic scenes, or will also keep the company from publishing any kind of literature which takes Mormons out of their comfort zones.
Covenant published 25 novels in 2002, up from 19 in 2001, which may be a record for LDS publishers. Covenant tends to produce mystery/suspense and romance, with a few LDS references hovering in the background. It is generally more conservative than Deseretin its content. With so many new books, and not a lot of newspaper or AML-list reviews, it is hard to get a handle of the overall quality of the material. Kelly Blair’s Closing In was the Covenant book which received the most positive notices. Reviewers raved about how well she blends humor and adventure. Betsy Green, Jeffery Savage, and Jennie Hansen also received strong reviews. Anita Stanfield, David Woolley, and Nancy Allen produced the company’s biggest sellers of the year.
Cedar Fort published 19 novels in 2002, up from 13 in 2001. Several of these were published in conjunction with Marilyn Brown’s Salt Press. Two recent books which received good reviews were Jeff Call’s Mormonville, a first novel, which features a refreshing look at Mormon Utah culture through the eyes of a cynical Eastern reporter, and Marilyn Brown’s historical fiction Ghosts of the Oquirrhs, about a young woman in a Utah mining community. Ragged Circle, by Veda Hale, Sons of Bear Lake, by Douglas Adler, and A Thousand Souls, by Cedar Fort co-owner Lee Nelson look intriguing. Rachael Nunes, a popular author who has published several novels with Covenant, switched to Cedar Fort mid-year, and produced Twice in a Lifetime, the company’s bestselling novel of 2002. Former Covenant author Marilyn Arnold also came over to Cedar Fort. The company appears to have a more open editorial policy than Deseret and Covenant (as seen by their publication of several borderline oddball non-fiction books), so I believe it has a potential for producing some interesting pieces of literature, filling the kind of role that Aspen and Hatrack provided in the early 1990s. They have also published some very poorly written novels, they really are the wild card of the Mormon publishing world.
Signature boasts the highest overall literary standards of the LDS publishing world, although they have averaged only two literary pieces a year for the last several years. This year they published two quality novels by Margaret Blair Young and Linda Hoffman Kimball. Critics of Signature might be surprised to hear that both are at their core “faithful” novels.
Granite continues to plug along like a junior Covenant, publishing five romance/adventures in 2002. A new vanity press, American Book, published two novels by Mormon authors towards the end of the year, although it is not primarily a Mormon press. Gibbs Smith, which is also not primarily a Mormon press, published its annual Carol Lynn Pearson book, as well as a Christmas storybook for missionaries. Cornerstone declared bankruptcy early in the year, and Horizon, the target of its failed merger, published only one novel. Greg Kofford Books, which has specialized in limited-run fine-binding books until now, announced it would start publishing for the general Mormon market, including fiction, and that it would distribute its books through Covenant. The music and film distributor Excel did not publish any more film tie-in books in 2002, Millennium Press published two, and the nearly defunct Aspen managed one.
There seems to be more self-published and vanity press-published novels appearing in the Mormon market. Richard Paul Evans, Kenny Kemp, and Cameron Wright have parleyed their self-published works into national contracts in recent years, and several Covenant and Cedar Fort authors self-published a novel or two before they got contracts with those companies. It is hard to be sure how many of these novels were published in 2002, I am aware of 15 so far. Some are found at most Mormon bookstores, like Richard Lloyd Dewey’s series about Orrin Porter Rockwell. Others probably are available in few places besides the internet. Jeff Needle gave a very strong review to one self-published novel this year, Dave Shield’s The Pendulum’s Path, which he called “literate alternative Mormon fiction”.
|Deseret/Shadow Mountain||12||9||8 (6/2)|
No new short story collection or anthology by a Mormon author was published in 2002, only the second year since 1986 that has happened. Two paperback versions of previously published hardback collections were released, however, Darrel Spencer’s 2000 collection Caution: Men in Trees and Brian Evenson’s 1994 collection Altmann’s Tongue. The Spencer collection is identical to the hardback version, but Evenson’s contains a few additions, including his 1997 story “Two Brothers”, which won the O. Henry award, a new introduction, and a postscript by Evenson in which he describes the reaction at BYU to his work, which lead to his resignation from the University.
Sunstone and Dialogue appear to be back to full srength after difficult transition periods around 1999-2001. For the first time in quite a while both published four issues in 2002. Dialogue, in its effort to catch up with its publishing schedule, released two double issues, although one was made up entirely of previously published material, and the other was only slightly larger than a normal issue.
Irreantum, Sunstone, and Dialogue published a total of 18 stories in their 2002 issues. I thought the overall level of the stories was quite high. Dialogue published only two stories, by Steven Cantwell and Karen Rosenbaum, both of them excellent. Sunstone published five stories, my favorite of which was Susan Palmer’s “Breakthrough”, about a woman’s struggle with her instincts. It won Sunstone’s Brooke and D. K. Brown Fiction Contest, as well as the AML Award for Short Story. Irreantum published eleven stories, I especially enjoyed the a series of four engaging stories in the 4:1 issue, which explored the spiritual lives of Mormon women, by Linda Paulsen Adams, Lisa Torcasso Downing, Karen Rosenbaum, and Darlene Young.
Brian Evenson, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, and Brett Alan Sanders wrote stories for small literary journals, but I did not read any of them.
Because of the Church’s decision to no longer publish fiction in The Friend and The New Era, there are no longer any strictly Mormon outlets for juvenile short stories, although Mormon authors continue to frequently publish in children’s magazines like “Highlights” and “Cricket”.
The number of stories published nationally by Mormon speculative fiction authors was down slightly in 2002. M. Shayne Bell had two stories published in 2002, one of which, the novelette “The Pagodas of Ciboure,” was nominated for a Nebula Award. Orson Scott Card published two stories in hard-to-find venues. I was also impressed by Susan J. Kroupa’s poignant story “That Kem May in Safe Pastures Feed.”
The main stories of the year are the establishment of a theatrical company dedicated to Mormon plays, a string of notable premiers inUtahandIdaho, two plays becoming staples of regional theater outside ofUtah, and the premiers of more harrowing works by the one really famous Mormon playwright on Broadway and theWest End. I was in theUnited Statesonly very briefly this year and only attended one play by an LDS playwright. I received most of my information on theUtahplays from reviews in theUtahnewspapers, comments on AML-list, and scuttlebutt from Players Anonymous, an active message board aboutUtahtheater.
Although existing on a smaller scale than some of the other works I will mention, perhaps the most significant event in Mormon theater in 2002 was the establishment of the Nauvoo Theatrical Society by Scott Bronson, Thom Duncan, and Paul Duerden. They also constructed the Center Street Theatre as part of the effort, a small 130-seat black box theater in Orem. The company and theater were created with the express purpose of producing plays by Mormon authors or with Mormon themes. Over the past three decades BrighamYoungUniversityhad provided a training ground and performance space for young Mormon playwrights and directors, which has resulted in the production of a significant body of plays about Mormons. Those who did not return to BYU to teach, however, have struggled to find performance space for Mormon-themed plays. The creators of the Nauvoo Theatrical Society aim to fill this niche. In its first season the company is producing a series of revivals of works by LDS playwrights over the last twenty five years. They began with two plays in 2002, Carol Lynn Pearson and Lex de Azavedo’s 1977 musical My Turn On Earth, and Tim Slover’s 1996 play Joyful Noise, both of which received excellent reviews. The Nauvoo Theatrical Society has scheduled four plays so far for 2003.
Tim Slover had two plays produced in 2002. One was the BYU premier production of Hancock County, which was the university’s entry in the State Cultural Olympiad. Slover based the play on the 1845 trial of five men accused of conspiring to kill Joseph Smith. He said he hoped the play would take the audience beyond the historical story to illuminate the nature of inter-cultural conflicts between neighbors. Reviewers raved about both the script and the production. Eric Snider from the Daily Herald said, “It is a clear, rich drama that is satisfying even when it doesn’t go the way we want it to.” R. W. Rasband said it was “an intelligent, thrilling, tightly-drawn courtroom drama/tragedy that unfolds into a meditation on America, violence, and forgiveness.” It is the production I most regret missing from 2002. Also, as mentioned above, Slover’s 1998 drama Joyful Noise, about Handel and his creation of The Messiah, was produced by the Nauvoo Theatrical Society later in the year, again to rave reviews. Eric Snider said, “The script is brimming with fantastic dramatic conflict, but it also is so rife with great lines that it is nearly Oscar Wildean . . . wit, emotion and loveliness abound in this stellar production.” It was hoped that a production of Joyful Noise in Lancaster, PA early in the year would lead to a Broadway production, but a poor review in the New York Times put an end to that momentum. Still, there were at least three other regional productions of the play in 2002, and more in the works for 2003, so the play may be on its way towards becoming a regional theater standard. It would be one of the first times a play produced originally for a Mormon audience has moved beyond that audience to find a place in the national theatrical world. Slover also created a screenplay version, which won a writing award early in the year.
BYU campuses were the sites of two other theatrical premiers, both tragic in nature; LeeAnne Hill Adams’ Yellow China Bell (in Provo), and Reed McColm’s Hole in the Sky (at BYU-Idaho). Adams, a BYU graduate student, made quite an impact with her first play about the life of an Armenian who as a 15-year old girl was raped, kidnapped and forced to marry a Russian man. Genelle Pugmire from the Deseret News and Eric Snider both strongly praised the work (“one of the most provocative and passionate plays ever to hit a BYU stage,” “intense and cathartic”), while recognizing that many in the audience would struggle with the harrowing events portrayed. In a postscript to his review Snider said “the joke was that this show was performed without intermission because they knew no one would come back if they gave them a chance to leave . . . [particularly] after the initial rape scene.” In 2003 BYU will present a second Adams play on the main stage, “Archipelago”, about a group of imprisoned Soviets, based in part on selections from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.
In Hole in the Sky, Reed McColm took on the September 11th tragedy, creating a story about fifteen people stuck on an upper floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center from the time of the first impact until the tower’s collapse. The two-week run was sold out and was held over for three nights. The play was awarded the 2002 AML Drama prize. The citation said the play “invited its audience into a space in which our fears could be transformed into compassion . . . At the play’s conclusion, as the words and images of leaders, both national and Mormon, mingled with the dust and broken girders of the falling building, instead of a curtain call and customary applause, an elegiac silence of several minutes’ length punctuated the catharsis–a fitting tribute to the play’s fitting tribute to this sobering event. McColm’s play was movingly redemptive, and the production was extended to accommodate the many who responded to its emotional richness.” Together Again for the First Time, a comedy McColm originally produced in 1985, also appeared at BYU-Idaho earlier in the year.
The peripatetic Eric Samuelsen had his finger in several pies, as usual. Peculiarities, a tragi-comedy about Mormonism and sexuality, was directed and performed by BYU students at the Villa Playhouse in Springville. The Salt Lake Tribune said it was “a brave exploration of what often bubbles just underneath a seemingly virtuous society.” The majority of AML-list reviewers spoke very highly about the work, calling it a “thoughtful” and “fearlessly honest” look at loneliness and sexual frustration among young single Mormons. Samuelsen also adapted the script of Magnificence, a medieval morality play, which was performed at BYU in tandem with Everyman. I attended the plays, my first taste of the genre, and was deeply moved and highly entertained by both. I have never seen religious devotion and raucous humor mixed so well in my life. Finally, he presented another new play at the BYU Writers, Directors, and Actors workshop. Titled Mount Vernon, it imagined a meeting between an aging George Washington and a time-traveling African-American history professor from the 21st century. One of Sameulsen’s students at BYU, Melissa Larson, premiered her play Wake Me When It’s Over in July, which received strong reviews from AML-list readers and A Play About a Movie at the BYU WDA workshop.
Other premiers included Tony and Karrol Cobb’s Book of Mormon musical The Promised Land at the SCERA in Orem, BYU professor George Nelson and BYU student Daniel Larson’s musical comedy Soft Shoe at BYU, about an aging vaudevillian and his family, Doug Stewart and Merrill Jenson’s 1940s-style musical comedy Almost Perfect at UVSC, and Bill Brown’s comedy Throwing Stones at the Villa. I do not get the impression that any of these works are headed for theatrical immortality.
Several plays which premiered in Utah over the last few years returned in refashioned productions in 2002. The most successful was a Thanksgiving Point production of Michael McLean and Kevin Kelly’s musical The Ark, based on the story of Noah and his family, which premiered in 1998. After a small string of productions in Utah the authors took the play to the prestigious Festival of New Musicals to be critiqued, which resulted in a simplification in the plot, focusing on the relationship between Noah and his doubting son, Ham. Eric Snider said, “this is a show of great humanity and beauty. It is sometimes uproariously funny, and other times uncommonly moving . . . go by any means necessary.” Ivan Lincoln from the Deseret News placed it in his top ten semi-professional plays of the year. Following in the footsteps of Joyful Noise, it appears that The Ark has some legs. There were two productions late in the year outside ofUtah, one at Eastern Arizona College, another at the Starlight Mountain Theater inIdaho. There is also a production scheduled at the Village Theater in Issaquah, Washington in the Spring of 2003.
Two other plays reappeared on Utah stages after a period of adjustment, although that is the only point of similarity between them. The pageant-like Tuacahn musical Utah! returned, the fifth version to appear so far, after a hiatus of a few years. The author of the current script (following versions by Robert Paxton, Reed McColm, and Tim Slover) was “Stallion Cornell”, the pen name of Jim Bennet. This version retained the previous music by Kurt Bestor and Sam Cardon and lyrics by Doug Stewart. It focused on Joseph Hamblin’s efforts to act as mediator between the Mormon settlers and the local Native Americans, avoiding the emphasis on polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre found in some earlier versions. Ivan Lincoln gave the production a fairly good review.
On the other end of the spectrum, Steven Fales brought his one-man show Confessions of a Mormon Boy back to the Rose Wagner Center, where it appeared in 2001, after appearances in New York City, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. Through monologue, comedy, song, and dance Fales tells the story of his struggle with and eventual acceptance of same-sex attraction, which resulted in his excommunication. The most recent version, which he hopes to eventually take to an Off-Broadway theater, includes more about his life inNew York City since his decision to come out.
From the oversized and the unconventional, three revivals of small, familiar plays received warm reviews from the Utah press: Carol Lynn Pearson and Lex de Azevado’s My Turn on Earth, the late Ralph Rogers Jr.’s Joseph and Mary: A Love Story, and Ruth and Nathan Hale’s The Educated Heart. Viewers of My Turn On Earth, one of the first of the popular-but-frequently-mocked 1970s Mormon musicals, were reminded by The Nauvoo Theatrical Society’s production that it contained some of the best songs and most engaging premise of the genre. Ivan Lincoln said the Bountiful Performing Arts Center’s semi-musical Joseph and Mary was a “heartfelt Christmas story . . . [which] more than any other show encapsulates what Christmas is all about.” Eric Snider said the Hale Center’s The Educated Heart was by far the most enjoyable of the nine plays by the Hales he had seen. “Unlike most of the other plays written by the godparents of Utah community theater, the characters . . . are not sitcom-inspired smart-alecks . . . the humor here comes, gently and unforced, from natural situations and believable characters.” Margaret Blair Young’s AML award-winning historical play I am Jane also was revised in productions in Provo and Los Angles over the course of the year.
Several theatrical events were scheduled to coincide with the Olympics in February. The Church put on its own pageant at the Conference Center, Light of the World. It was a big, impressive production, with over 1000 people in the cast. The script tried to cover all the bases of Mormonism, Olympic history, and universal brotherhood, which resulted in a bit of a muddle. Still, it was a lot of spectacle for only $5 a ticket, and it was without a doubt the most well attended Mormon theatrical event of the year. Down the street the Salt Lake Acting Company put on its own event called Cabbies, Cowboys, and the Tree of the Weeping Virgin, an omnibus of short plays with Utah settings. They included Mike Dorrell’s The Dome, about pioneers building the church house which now serves as the SLAC’s theater, Eager, by Mary Dickson, about a young LDS woman with a departing missionary boyfriend who has spread rumors about her, and The Unsettling, by Pete Rock, about a young LDS girl drawn into drug use and possible madness.
Neil LaBute continues to make a name for himself as both a creative force and an unsparing moralist in theater as well as film. While his most recent films (Possession and Nurse Betty, which he directed but did not originally write) have shown some rays of hope through the gloom, he continues to write and direct some of the most depressing, misogynistic plays ever to reach the big-time. His 2001 play The Shape of Things was performed in at least four regional theaters in North America in 2002, and his film version will be released in 2003. He premiered three new plays in 2002. The first, The Distance from Here, at the Almeida on London’s West End, told the story of “six young Americans trapped in a suburban wasteland, on the brink of revolt.” One young man, believing he has been sexually betrayed, kidnaps a baby and uses it as a means of extorting the truth from his girlfriend. John Lair in The New Yorker wrote in his review, “There is no playwright on the planet these days who is writing better than Neil Labute . . . LaBute, in his most ambitious and best play to date, gets inside the emptiness of American culture, the masquerade of pleasure and the evil of neglect . . . a new title to be added to the short list of important contemporary plays.” A reviewer for the Guardian was less complimentary, commenting that it was “a dismayingly cold piece: a vision of the spiritual emptiness of American suburbia recorded with the scientific detachment of a zoologist. LaBute presents the evidence without analyzing the causes of the U.S.’s descent to the abyss.” The play was to be produced on Broadway in 2002, but it was replaced by another new LaBute play, The Mercy Seat, and will appear in the 2003-2004 season instead.
The Mercy Seat, staring Liev Schreiber and Sigorney Weaver, played on Broadway in December 2002-January 2003, and was held over for four performances. It told the story of an adulterous couple on the morning of September 12th, who had just missed being killed because they were in her apartment instead of at their offices in the World Trade Center. LaBute “casts the couple’s narcissism and moral abdication into relief,” according to Tom Sellar in the Village Voice. New York reviewers for the most part strongly praised the actors and direction, but felt the script lacked direction. Ben Brantley in the New York Times wrote, “Ultimately you feel he’s not digging any deeper than the tabloids that made heroes out of everyone who died in the terrorist attacks . . . The Mercy Seat feels lazy. It doesn’t build, breathlessly but carefully, in the way of each of the transfixing monologues in ‘bash’. Thus the play’s stars must constantly invent new ways to tread water.” LaBute also wrote a one-act play, Land of the Dead, which was performed at Town Hall in New York City on September 11th as part Brave New World, an omnibus three-day memorial benefit for the victims of the terrorist attacks the year before. It stared Kristin Davis and Live Schreiber, and told the story of a man who tries to force his girlfriend to have an abortion. Unlike his 1999 play bash: latter-day plays, none of his 2002 plays appear to contain any reference to Mormons or Mormonism.
So, there you have it, from the sweet to the harrowing. It is quite a large number of works, considering that in 1970 probably even the most aware Mormon critic would be unable to name more than five original plays penned by a Mormon author. Now, if I could just get to see some of them.
Kimberly Johnson, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, produced her first poetry collection, Leviathan With a Hook, through Persea Books. It received the 2002 AML Poetry award. The award citation stated, ““Though in her poems “The Land Desolation” and “The Land Bountiful” Johnson gives exquisite renderings of desert landscapes well known in Mormon tradition, it is within a broader spiritual geography that her voice resonates, one that sometimes borders the formalities of Latin prayers (paternoster and te deum), and sometimes makes allusive forays to the Christian epic voice of Milton. Johnson’s paradise is not lost upon her, but finds itself (and those who read her) waking in the gyre and thrum of rhythmic, concrete diction. She is unafraid to name her world in terms both fresh and old, updating without loss the metaphysical devotions of another age when language could still awe us with its Christian mystery. This is a Mormon voice attuned to latent powers in the worth of words, and we are grateful for the stirring.”
[I did not write a review in 2002, so this is a 2011 summary of what happened.]
Two years after the release of God’s Army, the surge of Mormon-market movies, sometimes called “Mollywood”, was in full swing in 2002. Four Mormon-themed films were released in theaters. Dave Hunter and Kurt Hale created Halestorm Entertainment in 2001, and produced The Singles Ward in 2002. The comic merits of the film, which parodied Mormon and Utah culture, were much discussed and often derided by the criticial community at the time. Dutcher, who has a cameo in the film, later dismissed it and Halestorm’s other films, saying they “absolutely destroyed the LDS market. They’re seriously not trying to make good ones, and making excuses for why their movies aren’t good.” Despite the criticism, the film made $1,251,000 at the box office, more than triple its production budget. This, together with the earlier success of God’s Army and qualified success of The Other Side of Heaven, convinced many that there was a market for Mormon-themed films.
2002 also saw the release of Ryan Little’s feature film directorial debut Out of Step, an unexceptional romantic drama about a young dancer who must choose between Mormon and non-Mormon suitors. It did very poorly at the box office. Two more rookie directors produced films in 2002, Adam Anderegg’s Charly and Kels Goodman’s Handcart. Charly, based on the popular Jack Weyland novel, received largely poor reviews, and it was certainly not an exciting movie. KevinB makes some good points in his review about how the film addresses sexuality and religion in a more direct way than most Mormon cultural products. The film made $813,000 at the box office, almost breaking even with its production budget. Handcart did very poorly with both reviewers and at the box office.
Neil LaBute directed and co-wrote the screenplay for Possession, based on the A. S. Byatt novel. It received mixed reviews, and did not recoup its budget at the box office. I loved the book, and thought the film was okay. Blair Treu wrote and directed Secret Keeper, a sweet family movie that won the Crystal Heart Award, and generally had good reviews. It did poorly at the box office.
Christian Vuissa, who created the LDS Film Festival, directed the short film Roots & Wings, about a Mexican-American family divided between Mormonism and Catholicism. It won several film festival awards, as well as the 2002 AML Award for film. Andrew Black’s The Snell Show, an 8 minute black comedy featuring a nuclear explosion at a family get-together, was given an AML Award Honorable Mention. It went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival.