A Place in the Sun

Astounding in its beauty and powerful in its simplicity, local band Grain’s rock opera “A Place in the Sun” is an amazing combination of music and drama that will leave an indelible impact on the heart and soul of anyone who sees it.

The show, being performed tonight and Saturday at BYU’s Nelke Theater, is an effort to clear the name of a boy Grain feels has been mid-judged.

The boy is Alden Barrett, better known as “Jay” in Beatrice Sparks’s 1978 book “Jay’s Journal.” Alden, a 16-year-old Pleasant Grove resident, committed suicide in 1971, and his journal entries were mixed with fiction to create the character of Jay. Unfortunately, as the members of Grain will tell you, truth was not adequately distinguished from fiction, and for twenty years people have thought Alden Barrett was just like the occultist, Satan-worshipping character in the book. “A Place in the Sun” sets out to show the real Alden Barrett.

The actors don’t speak or sing in this show; music and lyrics are handled by Grain — one of the best bands in Utah, by the way — who perform from a raised platform on the stage.

This leaves the actors with many challenges. First, they can’t speak. Second, with the band taking up most of the stage, they have comparatively little room to move. Third, the lyrics to the songs are generally abstract, serving more to create a mood than tell a story, which works fine — but it doesn’t give the actors much to go on.

But through the clear theatrical vision of director Alisha Christiansen, the actors portray the story of Alden Barrett — his life, his struggles, his death, and the aftermath — with stunning clarity and realism. It’s not interpretive dance; it’s not simple-minded play-acting. It’s a powerful, intense, real portrayal of real characters in real situations — all without speaking a word or using extensive props or sets. That, in and of itself, makes this one of the best productions I have ever seen.

The stars of the show are not Grain, though they do get a few moments in the spotlight, particularly in their cathartic, intense finale. No, the stars are the actors, in particular Lance Powell as Alden. This young man conveys more in his face and movement than many actors convey in a lifetime of wordy Shakespearean monologues. This show lives or dies on the talent of the people acting it out, and Powell is devastatingly real in his performance, making the character unique, but also universal. We’ve all felt lonely; we’ve all felt out-of-place; and while most of us have not had the specific problems this near-genius, manic-depressive boy had, we can all relate to his isolation and sadness. Powell brings those feelings to the surface from the moment he walks onstage.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Joel R. Wallin and Rachel Parker add depth as Alden’s bereaved parents; however, their characters are not fleshed out very well until after the suicide. Jared Lynn, Jenny Lynn, Catherine Fillmore, Jolene Sayers, Kent Ellsworth, Adam Gilbert, Jjana Morrill, and Melanie Hall round out the cast, many of them playing several characters and doing so convincingly.

No show is perfect, of course. “A Place in the Sun,” at nearly 2 1/2 hours, runs a little long; cutting out or shortening a few particular songs would make the story more smooth and concise. And most of the intensity comes before intermission, with the over-simplified ending almost being rushed toward.

But believe me — these are minor complaints. The show is stunning and powerful. The music, though pure early-’70s-style rock and roll, is not overly loud or driving, and you can enjoy the show even if that sort of music isn’t your thing.

In short, everyone should see this show. Its message, portrayed so that you don’t even realize you’re being taught a message (which is always the best way), is too important to miss, and the sheer talent and dedication behind it deserve recognition.

I did this review two months before I officially started doing theater reviews for the Daily Herald. I did this one mainly because I knew Grain, having reviewed their CD and having done a story or two about the rock opera.

I've rarely written as "rave" a review as this one, but I definitely was not over-stating how I felt. The show was incredibly powerful, and incredibly moving. It was, for a long time, the best show I'd seen at BYU ("Children of Eden" finally nosed it out a couple years later).