Review of Mahonri Stewart’s A Roof Overhead
By Margaret Blair Young
There are many angles to Mahonri Stewart’s latest play, showing through Saturday, April 28, at the Little Brown Theater (248 South Main Street, Springville). On the surface, it seems blatantly calculated to bring to life this scripture:
“He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33).
We meet the Fieldings, immediately established as LDS because the parents, Daisy and Maxwell, are arguing about whether they should pay for their daughter’s mission or let her fund it herself. The Fielding children are likeable Mormons, though the youngest, Abish, is struggling with gender issues after her seminary teacher’s oddly non-orthodox lesson that Eve bore the curse of disobedience, and that women, therefore, were to be subservient to their husbands and to content themselves with eternal child bearing. (Apparently, the seminary teacher has not participated in an Endowment session in awhile.) Joel, the only son, is a playful returned missionary who talks about meeting polygamists on his mission, and Naomi is the most thoughtful of the Fielding children—contemplating a mission, but also in a romantic relationship. In the Fieldings we see the “Jews”—the covenant keepers.
Shortly, we meet Sam Forest, a woman who will be renting their basement apartment. Sam quickly establishes herself as a gentile—an atheist, who keeps herself aloof and distant from the family, refusing their frequent invitations to dinner. We understand her distance later when she authors a nationally syndicated article describing the Fieldings as good people, but cursed by their limited understanding of the world and their parochial life. Sam’s friend, Ashera, is not so determined to dislike the family, and agrees to eat with them—after revealing her taste for experimenting with a variety of religions, the latest being Wicca. She likes the fact that these Mormons seem to worship a Mother in Heaven, which resonates with her own sense of the divine feminine. She is the heathen, though after the friendly dinner, she decides to take the missionary lessons.
Enter: Tyrell Howard, Naomi’s romantic interest, an African American and a faithful Mormon. Thus Stewart introduces some color into his play. Refreshingly, the Fieldings do not do the predictable thing. Rather than questioning his eternal identity, they are kind and accommodating and have no problem with Naomi’s interest in him. Sam, however, relentlessly brings up past racist teachings of theLDS Church, and Tyrell answers them well.
Now we have all elements of the scripture: black and white, bond and free (taken metaphorically), male and female, Jew and gentile, and even a heathen.
For me, the most interesting dynamic of the play was its portrayal of women, particularly the mother figures. Daisy Fielding is independent, strong, and willing to teach her daughter (Abish) the scriptures after the seminary teacher’s offensive declarations. She knows Abish is struggling, and meets her on the path, determined to lead her back to faith. Sam, however, offers herself as an alternative mother, one who can open the wider world to Abish and confirm her doubts. This maternal competition is understated through most of the play, but loudly apparent in the final scene, where Daisy movingly describes what Abish means to her. Sam has no response.
The concept of the Divine Feminine is a motif throughout the play, as all of the Fieldings refer to their Mother in Heaven frequently, even in prayers. We see maternal direction through philosophy (Sam), through some sense of magical realism (Ashera), and ultimately through the triumphant and undeniable bond Daisy and Abish share—so powerful that the others have not been fully aware of it until the final scene.
Stewart’s characters are all strong, all opinionated, and all delightfully quirky in ways that help the audience suspend disbelief. An audience member could come to the play over several performances and glean new insights to his various themes of diversity, family bonds, and the dimensions of maternal influence.
The play is beautifully directed and acted, and the stage is so small that the audience feels as though they are a part of the production, having been invited to dinner by the Fieldings. The dinner is announced with the last line of the play: “Banana shakes.”