Stones

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“Stones” uses carefully considered poetic license to flesh out the biblical cases of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Jesus’ relationship with his mother Mary.

It is two plays, actually, “Altars” and “Tombs,” each using the same talented cast and basic black set. Both plays also use flashbacks to strengthen the emotions of the moment: What came before gives us insight into what’s happening now. Both were written and directed by J. Scott Bronson, who also acts in them.

“Altars” takes place on Mt. Moriah, where Abraham is supposed to kill his son as a sacrifice to God. The focus in the play is on theology more than psychology. The characters ask “Why?” a lot, and never say, “Are you SURE this is what we’re supposed to do?,” which probably would have been a more natural first question. There is the distinct feeling that a parable is being taught, that what’s happening here should make us consider our own feelings. It succeeds at this.

Bronson’s script does a good job bringing to the surface the feelings inherent in this situation. Already one of the most searingly human stories in the Bible, it is made all the more real here.

“Tombs” is set after the death of Joseph, with Mary grieving for her husband and Jesus comforting his mother. This is the more fictionalized of the two stories, as details about Jesus’ pre-ministry life are scarce. But nothing here runs contrary to what is known, and the affectionate relationship between Jesus and Mary rings gloriously true. “You are the greatest miracle in my life,” he tells her, and I believe it.

The performances are spectacular throughout. Bronson plays Abraham with gentle but realistic frustration, and also appears as Joseph in a “Tombs” flashback, vividly portraying the difficulty in being foster father to the Son of God. (He has to reprimand Jesus for ditching the family at the temple when he was 12, even while acknowledging that by definition, if Jesus did it, it must be OK.)

Kathryn Laycock Little cameos as Sarah in an “Altars” flashback, but it is her performance as Mary that is breathtaking. Mary is sensitive, dignified, lovely and humble, and one’s heart immediately goes out to her. “Tombs” is as appropriate for Mother’s Day as it is for Christmas and Easter.

Finally, Elwon Bakly pulls double duty as Isaac and Jesus, and excels in both roles. Jesus is a terribly difficult character to play — you want him to be human, but not TOO human, or it seems blaphemous — but Bakly rises to the challenge. Where most portrayals of Jesus make him impossibly cryptic, Bakly — and Bronson’s script — makes him emotionally accessible and sympathetic.

I have only two issues with the scripts. First, “Altars” needs more closure. We know what happens, of course, but the play needs to tell us in order to be complete in its storytelling. The audience waits for a release that doesn’t come.

Second, “Tombs” has a flashback to Jesus’ childhood in which he accidentally runs a nail through his palm — the only time in either play in which the symbolism is so smack-in-the-forehead obvious. (I also feel a flashforward vision to the actual moment of Jesus’ Atonement may be asking too much of any actor, and I question its necessity in the play.)

Neither story is as universal as was probably intended. Even though the script studiously avoids using any character names, these are still clearly the stories of Abraham and Isaac, and Mary and Jesus, and no one else.

This is not a shortcoming, however; a thoughtful play about biblical figures is as desirable as one about Every Family. The emotional intensity is palpable, and “Stones” is a cathartic, enriching experience.

Should you go? Yes. Such fine acting and insightful writing are rare, as is a show as uplifting as this one.

This was performed at the Little Brown Theatre (across the street from, and with the same owners as, the Villa Playhouse Theatre), but was not an in-house production. Scott Bronson put it together himself and merely used the the Little Brown space. Bill and Marilyn Brown, who own the theaters, have wisely and generously rented the black box space to several small productions, thus increasing the number of plays available for viewing in Utah County.

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