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Utah plays tell stories of contemporary Mormon women

Published March 27, 2014 3:05 pm

Stage • Playwright Eric Samuelsen unfolds observations of religious culture in his plays about the complications of relationships.
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Questioning perfectionism is one of the themes of "3," an evening of three short plays about contemporary Mormon women by Eric Samuelsen presented by Plan-B Theatre Company.

That the characters are all strong, complicated religious women makes the plays seem sprung from contemporary news stories questioning gender equality in a patriarchal culture. But Samuelsen says he hopes his plays are posing questions more universal than if women will be allowed access to the LDS Church's General Conference priesthood session next month or when wearing pants to church will no longer seem controversial.

"One stereotype of Mormon women, because of the priesthood thing, is that they are oppressed or silent," says Samuelsen, who describes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as his spiritual home. "That is not my experience, not even a little bit. I look at my wife and her sisters, all LDS women, and they are strong, smart and tough."

The plays of "3," the last installment of the theater company's season devoted to the Utah playwright's works, feature three actors playing multiple roles across the stories. The plays raise questions about the complications of good intentions within friendships and the objectification of women.

Speaking of the objectification of women, Samuelsen describes stories of leaders promising hard-working missionaries that the Lord will reward them with a really good-looking woman when they return home, or men in priesthood meetings talking about the hottest-looking women in the ward. "It's basic girl watching, really, which is what guys do, but it gets a particular religious twist," says Samuelsen.

In "Bar and Kell," two forceful LDS women stage a series of interventions for a less-active single mother in the ward, eventually coming to question their own motives; in "Community Standard," a juror in an indecency trial becomes aware of how she is objectified by her husband; and in "Duets," a woman is shunned by church friends when they learn the secret of her perfect-looking marriage to a husband who happens to be gay.

Samuelsen's plays take a very honest look at one particular community, but the stories have more universal themes, by focusing on characters struggling with their place in life and relationships, says actor Christy Summerhays.

"There's a lot of humor within these plays, but they are also kind of heartbreaking," says actor Stephanie Howell. "I want to help all of these women. Sometimes I want to give them a hug. Sometimes I want to talk some sense into them."

Contemporary LDS women aren't often portrayed on Utah stages, beyond the tradition of mining satirical humor from local culture — including James Arrington's long-running "The Farley Family Reunion" through the annual extravaganza of Salt Lake Acting Company's "Saturday's Voyeur" to Charles Lynn Frost's character of Sister Dottie Dixon, all featuring male characters in drag.

"I don't know that we spend a lot of time talking about Mormon women and their culture and their struggle" in the theater, says actor Teresa Sanderson. "I love these women, and I love being able to talk about women's issues."

For director Cheryl Ann Cluff, rehearsals with the all-women cast and crew have prompted discussions of hyperperfectionism, referring back to a groundbreaking 1979 KSL TV documentary by producer Louise Degn that highlighted depression among Mormon women. "Where does that come from anyway?" Cluff asks. "Leaders aren't actually saying you've got to be perfect. Does the doctrine come out and say that? We've talked a lot about where we think it comes from in the culture, trying to figure out how it became that way."

Adds Sanderson: "I think it's easy to blame men, or others, but the fact of the matter is we're really hard on ourselves."

Beyond religious culture, of course, bombs of judgment are often flung across the barricades of the mommy wars in American culture, as both stay-at-home and working moms worry about their choices.

"I've read blog after blog after blog after blog and article after article after article where women feel this way," says Cluff, a mother of two. "I'm not trying to be perfect. I'm just trying not to yell this week. That's what I'm working on."


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The drama of contemporary Mormon women

P Plan-B Theatre presents the final installment in a season of plays by Eric Samuelsen, with three short plays about contemporary Mormon women considering and reconsidering their friendships and relationships.

When • March 27-April 6: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Studio Theater, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $20 ($10 students); 801-355-2787; planbtheatre.org

Running time • 90 minutes, no intermission