The Storm Testament

Lee Nelson’s “The Storm Testament,” a series of novels, may be good, but the play based on those books is not.

OK, I’ll stop beating around the bush. The Villa Playhouse Theatre in Springville is not known for doing Broadway-quality plays anyway, but that’s fine. “Harvey,” the last production there, while lacking in many technical aspects, was still charming in its small-town simplicity. Plus, the script itself was cute and amusing, and the show was at least enjoyable.

“The Storm Testament” falls short on all those points. Not only is the script heavy-handed and serious, but this production of it lacks the joy and enthusiasm that are usually the saving grace of a community theater show. What is often lacking in acting ability and production values can be made up for with sheer zeal — but there is no such zeal in “The Storm Testament.” Simply put, the show is not enjoyable to watch.

The show is only two hours long, but it is an extremely long two hours. Things plod along at a very slow rate, with little emotion or vigor from the cast members to keep one’s interest. Even when exciting things are happening — boat wrecks, Indian attacks, etc. — the tone is muted and ambivalent, and major events manage to pass by virtually unnoticed.

The best thing about this show is Clay Elder, who plays the main character, Dan Storm. This young man — a teen-ager, by the looks of him — is an exceptional actor, and he stands almost alone in that regard. Without his acting skill and likable stage presence, the show would be absolutely unbearable.

The novels on which this play is based are full of action and adventure as young Dan Storm makes his way around the American frontier of the late 1830s. Naturally, much of this action is going to be lost when you move it to the stage. Unfortunately, there’s little else to take its place. The plot is negligible, the characters are two-dimensional; I haven’t read the books, but I’m guessing the action was the main reason people like them. If there’s more to it than that, it definitely got lost in the translation.

You sort of have to admire a local theater for even attempting a serious drama like this, but there’s something they need to realize, too. While comedy is harder to perform than drama, it’s also much easier to make a comedy entertaining. With a comedy, the basic structure and characters are liable to at least be interesting to the audience, even if you don’t do a good job of making them funny. But with a drama, if you don’t do it well — what’s left to recommend it? Drama can only be engaging if it has emotional impact. If you don’t have the local resources to produce that impact, then you shouldn’t do a drama.

Better luck next time, Springville.

"The Storm Testament" is without a doubt the worst play I have ever seen in my life. In fact, it may well have been the worst play ever performed, anywhere, by anyone. It was paralyzingly boring and slow, with people up on stage not so much acting as taking up valuable space and occasionally saying words. It wasn't even fun to make fun of, that's how bad it was. When the play was over, I literally had a headache, and I was depressed the rest of the night. No show has ever affected me, for good or bad, as much as this show did. It made me want to take the life of a loved one. I knew it might not be very good, so I made sure to see it with a friend rather than a date; but now, I can no longer be friends with this person because every time I see him, I think of this play.

Naturally, you cannot write a negative review of something in Utah County without someone getting mad at you (just who do I think I am, expressing opinions like that?!). And so the day this was published, the producer of the show, Bill Brown, called me at work.

Bill Brown was very civil to me, but his main point, if I assessed things correctly, was that when they asked to have their show reviewed, what they were really asking for was some nice free publicity. It didn't seem to have occurred to him that a negative review was actually a possibility. In fact, when I got the press release for the show at The Daily Universe, whoever sent it had hand-written at the bottom, "Please support our show and help us get some publicity!" This makes me angry.

Bill Brown said, "As a journalist, you have the power to crush people's feelings with the stroke of a pen." I told him I was aware of that, but I kept thinking, "Hey -- I'm not the one who made your show crappy. YOU produced the show, and YOU asked US to come review it. If your show is lousy, don't invite critics." But I did not tell him that.

He finally asked what about the show DID work for me. I was thinking, "Well, we had ice cream afterwards..." What I said was that the blocking seemed OK.

Naturally, people wrote letters, too....

Daily Herald editor:

How sad! The BYU journalism student missed truly SEEing the excellent play playing at the Villa: 'Storm Testament.' Lee Nelson's writing, from which this pageant-portrayal has been adapted, is chock-full of reality that can only be seen ... and felt ... by those willing to see beyond the actor, the script and narrative program ... even [beyond] the astounding music backdrop that nearly surmounts the telling [of] this historical portrait.

Better that Eric Snider, your correspondent, had taken the novels seriously, as your early readers had when presented in [the] Utah County Journal. [NOTE: The Utah County Journal is a weekly joke of a newspaper filled mostly with odd political rants by Patrick Bryson and re-typed press releases. I remember now that "Storm Testament" was originally published there, in serial fashion. I have not read the "Storm Testament," but I have heard it's not very good, and being published in the Utah County Journal certainly does not speak well of a work's quality.] The slow-moving tempo is like life: not always entertaining, cute, and amusing. For us, the script was more like history: seen in swatches, segments, oft-still in life and its reporting. But, to put truly touching music [in it] to make meanings more, ahhh! There is something to see and feel in Springville before this community experience passes into its own history. Go! See the community theatre slicing of pioneering life!

Those who feel comfortable with the plodding nature of the recent Sesquicentennial [the 150th anniversary of the Mormon Pioneers' entry into Utah] backdrop should also find the 'Storm Testament' presentation -- NOT the novels, but the novel segments of living Bill Brown and company have remarkably put together ... for those who truly exeperience history ... which also at times appears 'slow-moving, emotionless' while also being believably beautiful in the musical magic of meaning this set of viewers found more than profound. We disagree with your reviewer, IMPACT was not as noticeable in this staging. It had to be felt from the Dan Storm perspective as 'memories, music and meaning' a whole set of volunteer performers brought to bear to help us remember that life is serious, superb in its snatches and swatching of sensings so vital to what actors attempt to announce in their life-plots. DO go; see for yourself that Dan Storm is one of the most sought-after characterizations of Pioneer times, moving slowly but truly in life today.

V. Lynn and Arlean Tyler

I've read this letter several times now and still am not sure what he was saying in certain parts of it.

I did catch, in the first paragraph, that I was supposed to "see beyond" the actors, dialogue and music. What am I supposed to look at, the sets? (Note: The sets were bad, too.)

I also like the part about how real life is not always exciting, and that's why the play was slow. This implies that they WANTED the show to be slow. If this is true, then 1) Why?, and 2) Mission accomplished!

On Oct. 21, I got the following anonymous note mailed to me at The Daily Universe:

Dear Mr. Snider,

It might be wise to consider the power of the press when you sit in judgement of others!
The note came in an envelope with no return address. Accompanying the note was a photocopied article from the November 1997 "Reader's Digest" (p. 83), called "The King of Dumb." It's about a journalist who used his newspaper powers to have a certain congressman declared by his colleagues "The Dumbest Congressman." Then, years later, the journalist read the congressman's obituary, which mentioned this past "honor." The obituary also mentioned all the good things the man had done, such as teaching a Sunday School class for 20 years and being president of the PTA, and the journalist felt ashamed that he had used to powers to present such a one-sided, unfair view of the man.

I get the point, of course, but it doesn't exactly apply. For one thing, the only person I mentioned by name in my review was the one person I said was really good. Furthermore, I only slandered the show, not the people involved in it.

Furthermore, as I believe I've mentioned before, the show was really REALLY bad. I cannot overstate this point.

I was mystified as to who had sent this anonymous note. Later that day, I visited the Herald offices to check my box and found the following letter, written by Marni Ashby. She had worked extensively with the Villa but was not directly involved with "The Storm Testament." Accompanying this letter was the envelope it had come in, on which I thought I recognized the handwriting as being the same as on my anonymous note earlier that day. I was so convinced that the anonymous note and this letter had both come from Ms. Ashby that I said so here on this Web site; however, some years later, Ms. Ashby stumbled across it and said she was NOT the author of the anonymous note. No longer having the physical evidence, I shall have to take her word for it.

Anyway, here is the letter she DID write, addressed to the Herald. As with all letters reprinted here, I have preserved her spelling and punctuation.

To the editor:

I am writing reference to Eric Sniders' review of the Villa Theatre's production of The Storm Testament. I have directed community theatre shows in Springville, (which I feel is very fortunate to be home to three quality community theatres - Art City Community Theatre, Villa Playhouse, and Springville Playhouse latter which has been in existence for over 50 years.)

I have been grateful to have received some very positive reviews in the past. However, I do not pretend to be able to please everyone, nor do I consider myself the director of "Broadway quality" shows. What I try to do is put together wholesome and entertaining shows that will 1) please the theatre group I am working for 2) Make the audience glad they came and 3) bring a group of unpaid actors and other volunteers together in a situation that promotes team-work, self-esteem and friendship. Hopefully in the process they will also have the thrill of bringing joy to others.

As an 'occasional player in the BYU community' [a tag expressing that fact, more or less, appeared at the end of my reviews so the reader knows that I have some experience in the area I'm critiquing] I would think Mr. Snider would realize that community theatre is a lot of sweat and time from a large group of people from all walks of life. As a journalism student at BYU I would hope he would realize that with one swipe of his self-righteous pen, he has lowered the morale of a group of sweet, hardworking people whose only crime was to try to entertain him. If he didn't enjoy the play that is his right. [But SAYING that I didn't like it apparently is not.] I often go to shows where I see things I would change. Sometimes I realize there is a lot of truth to what our moms say "If you can't say anything nice,.....". Bill and Marilyn Brown have put their lives into the Villa Playhouse. It has been Bills dream for many years. He has put thousands of hours and dollars into making it work. He doesn't care if it doesn't make him rich and famous. He has a true love for the art and giving others a chance to participate. Please realize that you as a paper have the potential to turn his dream into a nightmare with your words. It's important to keep things in perspective. You are not the New York Times anymore than I am "Broadway Quality." But I would much rather stay amateur than hurt others in the process of trying to make myself look professional.

Marni Ashby
This letter contains one of my favorite lines ever written: "With one swipe of his self-righteous pen, he has lowered the morale of a group of sweet, hardworking people whose only crime was to try to entertain him." I take issue with that, though. Their only crime was NOT trying to entertain me. It was trying to entertain me but instead making me want to kill myself.

I am glad that Marni took the time to put into words the sentiment that is so widespread in the Provo area: That reviewers aren't supposed to CRITICIZE shows; they're just supposed to say positive things and give the play (or CD, or whatever) good publicity. "If you can't say anything nice...."

Then, on Nov. 5, the Daily Herald printed this letter:


Your review criticized the Villa Community Theatre for attempting a serious drama like 'Storm Testament,' but I'm glad they did.

If anyone felt let down because all the sesquicentennial events were past, cheer up! This western saga, true to the books written by local author Lee Nelson, fills the bill. There is a large, talented cast which bring the characters in Nelson's books alive in fast-moving scene changes, including fightin', dancin', and lovin'. And all this in the easily accessible, affordable, casual atmosphere of Springville's Main Street Villa Theatre. My family, age 8 and older, has very much enjoyed it.

Catherine Jensen
Later, the Herald got a letter from someone who is the director, or something, of one of the OTHER theaters in Springville. He was bothered by the last line of my review -- "Better luck next time, Springville" -- because it didn't distinguish WHICH specific Springville theater (there are three) I was talking about. Basically, he wanted to disassociate his theater from the Villa Playhouse, which I don't blame him for.

A couple years later, I heard from two young men separately, both high school students now, who had been in "Storm Testament" and had stumbled across my review online. One of them was Clay Elder (Dan Storm himself), whom I later reviewed in other shows and still found to be quite talented. In his e-mail to me, he said, in part, "I am most likely the person who suffered most from the effects of the show. During the actual run of the show, I never wanted to read any of the reviews for fear of what they would say, and so I never got the chance to read your review. Finally, now that my therapist had said that I've sufficiently repressed the whole experience, I'm now allowed to slowly start remembering that period in my life and so I finally got to read the review. Thank you very much for giving me such a great review, it made me feel amazingly better about the whole situation."

I think he was kidding about the therapist thing.

I eventually got to be friendly with Bill and Marilyn Brown, Marilyn in particular. Once, in a candid moment, I said, "So what was the deal with 'Storm Testament'?" She said, "Well, we had a bad script to begin with...." and it went from there.