Mountain Meadows Massacre Play
By Jayne Blanchard
June 17, 2006
The face we present to the world, as well as
the lies we tell ourselves and those closest to us, are the focus of Julie
Jensen's stark, involving play "Two-Headed," a production at the Washington
Shakespeare Company under the direction of Gregg Henry that features some of the
most compelling acting you are likely to see south of Studio Theatre.
Lee Mikeska Gardner and Melissa Flaim portray two Mormon frontierswomen
grappling for 40 years with the fallout from Utah's Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The play is a resonant testament to the power of secrets, how they warp as much
as shape us.
Miss Jensen was raised in Utah and is a descendant of Col. William H. Dame
of the Mormon Militia, which helped plan the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857
-- in which 120 California-bound emigrants from the Midwest and Southwest were
murdered. (Seventeen children were spared and absorbed into the Mormon
community.) The bodies were buried hastily in shallow graves, the corpses
promptly dug up by wolves.
Then-Gov. Brigham Young first blamed the Paiute Indians for the massacre,
but in later murder trials, it became evident that Mormon settlers, under the
direction of John D. Lee, were actively involved with the Paiutes in the
planning and execution of the attack. Speculation abounds to this day, but many
theories focus on a combination of retribution and religious fervor that spurred
the Mormons to such an act of butchery.
"Two-Headed" does not treat the Mountain Meadows Massacre as a courtroom
drama or whodunit -- the savagery is spoken of indirectly, danced around.
The bare, unblinking poetry of the dialogue and staging puts you in mind of
a desert version of "Waiting for Godot," and, indeed, in Michael Kachman's set,
a burned-out tree dominates the stage.
The massacre is seen through the eyes of Hettie (Miss Gardner) and Lavinia
(Miss Flaim), who are 10 years old when the event occurs and are as curious and
bug-eyed as children at a carnival sideshow. They exult in the horrors of what
the emigrants left behind -- sexy camisoles of pure silk and lockets, and there
even is talk of a two-headed calf.
This glee dissipates as the friends endure the strain of keeping such a
dark, nasty secret, as well as the death of their friend Jane. The short, sharp
scenes detail each decade in the women's lives as they move onto marriages,
children, disappointment and hardship.
Polygamy is one of the many burdens Hettie and Lavinia must endure -- Hettie
marries Lavinia's father, and Lavinia gets hitched to Jane's widower, Ezra,
before the corpse is barely cold. The indignities don't end there -- the women,
in middle age, must remain steadfast as Ezra takes Hettie's teenage daughter for
a bride. Life for these women, it seems, was an endless rut of obedience and
Through it all, Hettie is sustained by a bovine sense of acceptance and
faith, looking for the good things in life even when it seems ridiculous. Miss
Gardner, whose acting and directing usually are shorthand for "strength,"
displays aching vulnerability as the hesitant, slightly foolish Hettie.
Conversely, Miss Flaim is as hard-bitten as Miss Gardner is soft.
Fueled by rage over her father, who played a major role in the massacre, as
well as a lifetime of unkindness, Miss Flaim's Lavinia is a stunning testament
to how hatred can keep you alive while eating you alive.
As with the massacre, the men in "Two-Headed" are never seen; their lives unfold in the stories told by women. Hettie and Lavinia compose vivid portraits of men, relishing their usually ignoble ends in jail or asylums or through violent death. The women endure, aging and bearing harsh witness to the acts committed in the name of God.
History may be rewritten
through the ages, but as Miss Jensen suggests, fading memory does not take away
WHAT: "Two-Headed," by Julie Jensen
WHERE: Washington Shakespeare Company, Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Crystal City
WHEN: 8 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays until July 5; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays July 6 through 9.
TICKETS: $22 to $30
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