“Burdens of Earth” is an interesting, if unspectacular, dramatization of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s soul-trying time in Liberty Jail. It’s funneled into one important night, during which all the doubts and fears come back to haunt Joseph one last time before finally he sees the light at the end of the tunnel.
Little time is wasted; within five minutes, the question at hand has already been asked: Why? The saints have been chased out of New York and Ohio and are about to lose Missouri, too. Their property is being destroyed. Some are dying.
Joseph (Joseph S. Hale) is frustrated at apparently being punished without knowing what his sin was. He’s locked in this freezing-cold prison with his brother Hyrum (Jacob Anderson), and followers Caleb Baldwin (Jacob Draper), Alexander McRae (Doug Stewart) and Lyman Wight (Andrew Allman). They want him to say definitively, as a prophet, that they’ll all make it out alive. He can’t — not because he knows it to be false, but because he doesn’t know one way or the other.
Though his friends try to comfort him, Joseph is beset with regrets. In flashback, he sees the recently excommunicated Oliver Cowdery (Stewart). Did he handle that correctly? He also sees Mormon-haters Phineas Hobart (Anderson) and Sam Burris (Allman). What if he had treated them more respectfully? (In that instance, he even sees an alternate version of the past, where he did act differently — and the result was the same.) What about Hanson Jacobs (Draper), the unsteady convert whose family endured so much at the hands of Missourians? Are all of these bad things Joseph’s fault?
The play, written by BYU’s Susan Howe, is thoughtful and incisive. Joseph’s dilemmas and demons are clearly defined without being oversimplified. The answers to his questions do come, but like the revelations they were, they come quietly and subtly. This lends realism, although dramatically speaking, a more careful building up to the final epiphanies would have been better. The play is essentially in climax the entire time — which, without different levels of emotion, is almost the same as having no climax at all.
On the plus side, “Burdens of Earth” is commendable for presenting Joseph Smith in an un-sentimentalized manner. It’s the rare theatrical treatment of him that doesn’t stoop to emotional manipulation or mushy sermonizing, making this a highly intelligent theatrical and religious experience.
This play was presented without intermission, and the theater is tiny and intimate. So it's not a good idea to get up during the show, because you'll be disruptive -- yet, if you wait, you'll be waiting until the entire play is over.
Such was the dilemma of the little boy behind me, who, five seconds after the play began, told his mom he was thirsty. She wouldn't let him get up, though, for fear he'd be a distraction. I commend her for that; however, I think leaving once and coming back would have been less an annoyance than hearing him whisper loudly, "I'm so thirsty!" every 10 seconds for the duration. Which is what he did. At one point, he became melodramatic: "My lips are bleeding!" Poor kid.