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Stewart, ed., "Saints on Stage" (reviewed by Thom Duncan) Options · View
jeffneedle
Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 10:11:19 PM

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Review
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Title: Saints on Stage
Author / Editor: Mahonri Stewart
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Fiction / Theater / Anthology
Year Published: 2013
Number of Pages: 657
Binding: Soft
ISBN: 978-0-9883233-1-5
Price: $28.95

Reviewed by Thom Duncan for the Association for Mormon Letters

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this review also has a play published in this anthology.

Perhaps it's a bit pretentious to use the words “seminal” or “groundbreaking” in referring to an anthology of LDS plays. But what words would you use to describe a book which brings together eleven plays written by and produced for LDS audiences into one nicely designed and hefty volume, which includes a series of insightful essays about each play and interesting biographies of the individual playwrights? "Saints on Stage," edited by Mahonri Stewart (who also has a play represented in the volume), provides an elucidating introduction which could stand alone as a mini-course in the history of LDS stage plays. His informative introductory essays to each play add detailed information on each play, how it came to be and its production history, as well as needed insight into the minds of the playwrights themselves. For the foreseeable future, this book will stand alone as the ultimate source of the best LDS plays available.

The plays represented run the gamut of subjects: historical, missionary, and contemporary. They are not all gentle plays, as you might find produced in a ward or stake center. These plays hold their own in theme, style, and subject matter when compared to anything the legitimate theater world offers. "Fires of the Mind," by Robert Elliot, for instance, deals with missionary life that is somewhat different from what is preached over the pulpit.

Fans of LDS Church history will find new insight into little-known stories in Church history. "Heubner," by Tom Rogers, is about a young German LDS teenager during Hitler's rule and the loyalty test he has between his church and his conscience. Margaret Blair Young's "I Am Jane" tells the story of early black Mormons and how they dealt with the challenge of racism and priesthood denial in the early Church. Tim Slover's "Hancock County" presents the real account of what happened to the persecutors of Joseph Smith, while not sacrificing story for characterization. "J. Golden," a one-man show about everybody's favorite General Authority, J. Golden Kimball, presents a sometimes snarky, often hilarious and occasionally touching view of the iconic Church leader. "Burdens of the Earth" by Susan Elisabeth Howe accomplishes the rare feat of telling the story of a pivotal time in Joseph Smith's life (his imprisonment in Liberty Jail) without sugar-coating the story. As evidenced by these plays alone, it should be clear that readers are in for an intellectually challenging and artistically fulfilling (and entertaining) time.

Plays based on contemporary themes are also well represented: "Gadianton" by Eric Samuelsen and "Matters of the Heart" by Thom Duncan, the former dealing with the eternal challenges between serving God and Mammon (in this play, in the high tech-business environment), the latter touching on the sometimes confrontational moments between LDS conservatives and liberals, especially as expressed with a single family.
"Farewell to Eden," by Mahonri Stewart, stands alone in this anthology for his excellent and finely crafted period piece. Taking place in 1840's England, it is a play that, in style and presentation, perfectly imitates the manners and time of the era, while simultaneously presenting its “Mormonism” as an outgrowth of the characters, rather than the main theme.

Not all the plays in Saints on Stage show their “Mormon-ness.” Without entirely avoiding the spiritual, two plays in the anthology address religion in its more universal aspects. "Stones," by J. Scott Bronson, shares the solitary honor being the most poetic of all the plays. With dialogue that caresses the ear when necessary and invades the heart where required, "Stones" links the story of Abraham and Jesus in a two-act masterpiece of lyric beauty, and offers a completely original take on the spirituality of sacrifice. "Martyr's Crossing," by Melissa Leilani Larsen, isn't even about Mormons. It's about Joan of Arc, or more precisely, it is about the power of vision and faith as a motivator for acts of selfless good.

"Saints on Stage" should be in the library of everyone who is interested in what's been happening in the LDS theater world from 1974 to the present.
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