Mahonri Stewart’s _A Roof Overhead_ (review)

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.”

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12 Responses to Mahonri Stewart’s _A Roof Overhead_ (review)

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    You mention that the Fieldings frequently mention a Mother in Heaven. I could imagine a variety of ways of doing this, ranging from the uncontroversial (among LDS), likely to raise no eyebrows among even the most orthodox (e.g., the Proclamation on the Family’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to heavenly parents), to the startling and beyond. Where do you think Stewart’s Fieldings fall, in terms of the general body of believing Church members? E.g., would the more orthodox members of my ward be able to see themselves in these Mormons, or would they feel that the Mormonism they see here is edgy and dangerous?

    • Jonathan, the Fieldings reference Mother in Heaven in prayers and conversation, much like my wife and I do, but don’t pray directly to her, if that’s what you’re asking. There’s nothing in the Fieldings that would put them on the fringe of Church membership. Naomi is a counselor in her Relief Society. Maxwell “follows the Brethren” and tries to “support Church programs.” They reference Mitt Romney in a positive light, so some of them may even be moderate Republicans. Daisy and Abish have set up a regular mother/daughter scripture study to help her deal with some of her issues. They’re active in the Church and, culturally, they’re generally in step with most Mormons, but differ in small, significant ways. They think more independently than some Mormons may. They’re generally pretty tolerant, maybe even “progressive,” especially when it comes to issues of race and gender (it would be fair to call them moderate feminists). Naomi claims charismatic spiritual gifts (as did Joel in a cut scene). Their kids are seeking post graduate studies, so have some tendencies to intellectualism. But they seek to live the Gospel, support the Church and follow the Spirit and do not see any of these above qualities as out of step with that goal.

      • Randy King says:

        Oh and, it was a wonderful extra treat to see you Margaret after over thirty years since our performances in the first production of Huebner. Thanks so much for your thoughtful review. I weary of reviewers or adjudicators who approach their work by critiquing what they wanted to see rather than what they saw. I hope to read your reviews in the future.

        • Randy King says:

          Hmmm…I need to watch where I post things.

        • Margaret Blair Young says:

          Great to see you too, Randy. Actually, I don’t write many reviews, but was happy to do this one. I got sidetracked into some scholarly things a few years ago but am now eager to get back to creative work. It was also really nice to have a date with my husband.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          “Sidetracked into scholarship”–a great line.

  2. That was an excellent review. I really admire your clear understanding of plot, imagery and symbolism. This is certainly a modern LDS feminist play from a modern feminist LDS playwright. I enjoyed it immensely.

  3. David Nieves says:

    I think Nathanial answered the question well. This play portrays a forward thinking possibly feminist Mormon family. That in and of itself might rub some orthodox Utah Mormons the wrong way. The play is VERY well written and I love the characters. I think everyone will get something different out of the play when they leave, and that shows good writing. Another good sign that it’s well written, I hate the ending and left upset like only a good story that rubs me the wrong way can.

  4. I LOVED this play! I also thought it was extremely well written–to touch on all of these issues in one drama with depth and integrity. I felt the Utah Theatre Blog review was a little unfair, as it dealt mostly with production issues rather than the writing. And the production was pretty good, I thought! The writing carried it, Mahonri! It was an admirable piece! Thank you for doing it at our Little Brown Theatre. (You raise the quality for this little venue!)

  5. Randy King says:

    Having read a great deal about many of the subjects this play tackles I was excited when Mahonri asked me to direct…a little less excited when I realized I’d have to play Max as well but that is another story altogether. I imagine Orson Hyde’s teachings (from the pulpit at conference) about the marriage of Jesus and the bloodline that continued from that time to the present, will become front and center among we LDS in the near future. Following Elder Hyde’s comments Pres. Young testified to the truth of Hydes testimony. Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith told a group of missionaries, in answer to the question of Christ’s marital status, that He was married to Mary Magdalen but that the world was not ready for it. This happened about two weeks before I also attended such a gathering in the temple before my mission. The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is a beautiful thing.
    Mahonri also touches on “militant athiesm” which is very much alive today as well is evangelical mistrust of LDS Christianity. These movements may not remain peaceful and the testimonies of LDS people will have to be strong to endure the persecution on the horizon.
    Mahonri’s wisdom in the way he wrote this play is an example to other writers. A serious and doctrinal approach to Mormonism, with no apologies and no insecurity, is the wave of the future…I hope.

    • Thanks, Randy, and everyone!
      I should make one thing clear about Randy’s comment about the “Bloodline” of Christ. This play doesn’t touch on that issue. Not that I find it wrong, I’m open to both sides of that argument, but it doesn’t work itself into this narrative. Just to clarify…

      • And by “open to both side of that argument,” I should say that I lean towards Elder Hyde’s opinion on the matter, and a more prominent role for Mary Magdalene/Mary of Bethany (some traditions say they are the same person) in scriptural accounts… but that’s a whole different can of worms that, again, hasn’t much to do with the play, except its ties to faithful Mormon feminism.

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