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Review: 'Suffrage' offers a unique take on Utah's polygamist past

Published April 5, 2013 10:02 pm

Stage review • Plan-B's production linking polygamy and suffrage suited for history buffs.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Like the abolition of slavery and the humane treatment of animals, the women's right to vote is a freedom with no lingering controversy.

Like all freedoms, though, its true origin is worth exploring for the simple reason that it might bear similar freedoms in the future.

"Suffrage," by Utah playwright Jenifer Nii, recreates the religious and political atmosphere of the early Utah territory through the eyes of two quarreling sister wives. This world premiere production, by Plan-B Theatre Company, addresses the premise in ways that don't always satisfy — not that it matters. By play's end, you may end up more pleased at having seen a crucial piece of Utah history recreated so well and with such care.

Common sense or, as Nii reveals, common bias would have us believe that polygamy could never foster the sort of political environment that would also allow women to vote on equal footing with men. But, to echo a well-worn phrase from writer Malcolm Gladwell, "we'd be wrong." While polygamy gave one man marital dominion over several women, that dominion ended at the political line. All that's well established in the historical record left to us by Relief Society president Emmeline B. Wells, who wrote with George Q. Cannon that "a woman born in the United States is a citizen just as much as a man."

Americans fearful of Mormon polygamy also feared granting women the vote would strengthen plural marriage, with women falling in line with their husbands. Denying women the vote, they felt, chipped away at women's rights and polygamy.

"Suffrage" demonstrates that history was much more complicated than that simple cause and effect. While it isn't always great entertainment — there are times this drama makes you feel as if you're trapped in an elevator with two bickering Relief Society sisters — it's fascinating to watch.

April Fossen plays Frances, the second of five wives to an unseen man named Benjamin. Older and more matronly, she obsesses about the family children, but not quite as much as she wrings her hands over her younger sister wife, Ruth. Alarmed at U.S. government's persecution of practicing polygamists, Ruth sees religious and political freedom as one and the same. Which they are.

The curiosity of "Suffrage" is that this equation is so obvious to a Mormon sister wife, but not to oppressive forces in Washington, D.C., seeking to stanch the "twin barbarities" of polygamy and slavery.

"I know of no more independent woman than the one who lives the law of polygamy—for she must hold herself up among many, and care for the needs of more," says Ruth, played by Sarah Young. "Give us the vote, we will study."

As Fossen and Young trade opposing lines over the importance of political freedom and domestic duties, keeping score can be hard, if not tedious, if you don't care deeply about Mormon or Utah history. History lessons, even novel and untold ones, are difficult to make compelling in the spare confines of one stage and two actors.

"Suffrage" is far more interesting as a simple story about two women who find what little humor there is in hardship, as polygamy is banned and families are disbanded. Fossen and Young deftly portray the pride, faith and fortitude that certainly must have existed between early Utah women.

Nevertheless, "Suffrage" rings true when it shows us that freedoms are born from unlikely places, and by people for whom freedom takes on different definitions. At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court may expand marriage privileges to gay couples, and even some Mormon women politely ask for priesthood ordination, that's a lesson well worth heeding.

bfulton@sltrib.com

Plan-B Theatre's 'Suffrage'

When » April 4-14. Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Where » Studio Theatre, Rose Wagner, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets » $10-$20. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit planbtheatre.org for more information.

Bottom line • An invaluable dramatic recreation of Utah history that's well acted and produced, but better suited to history buffs than entertainment seekers. One hour and 15 minutes with no intermission.