Two-Headed

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Salt Lake Acting Company’s world-premiere production of Julie Jensen’s “Two-Headed” is a mixed bag of history, emotion and loads of dialogue, almost as double-minded as its title.

The play consists of five scenes, each taking place in the backyard of a Southern Utah home belonging to Lavinia’s (Anita Booher) family. In the first scene, best friends Lavinia and Hettie (Valerie Kittel) are 10 years old, and it’s 1857 — just after the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The following four scenes take place in 10-year intervals, ending in 1897 with the women now at age 50.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which 127 Missourians were killed while heading to California, is a dark chapter in Utah history. At first the attack was blamed on the Indians; later, the truth came out — that the Mormon Church was behind it (how high up the church’s hierarchy knowledge of the incident went depends on which historian you ask).

In “Two-Headed,” Lavinia’s father is the local commander, and directly responsible for the attack. This knowledge traumatizes the young, already somber-minded girl. In the remaining scenes, Lavinia becomes increasingly bitter, first because her friend Jane has died, then because polygamy is being practiced and Hettie has married Lavinia’s father, then because Lavinia’s husband is marrying Hettie’s daughter.

Meanwhile, Hettie remains strong in the faith, at times almost chirpily optimistic. The two are friends for most of the time, though Lavinia has a hard time forgiving Hettie for marrying her dad.

Performances from both actresses are quite strong. Though the sets are simple and abstract, and the performing area small, the women draw the audience into their world with remarkable sensitivity and passion.

Ultimately, this play is about how the Mountain Meadows Massacre scarred Utah the people who witnessed it. It could be applied universally to the devastating effects of any major tragedy, but little attempt is made to do that. “Two-Headed” seems content to JUST be about Mountain Meadows.

In that area, it comes up short. Mountain Meadows was awful — but everyone knows that already. If the point of the play is to tell us that, then it’s belaboring the obvious.

Jensen’s dialogue captures the unique way of speaking found in rural Utah 100 years ago, while at the same time sounding too theatrical and stagy — you know, when the conversation sounds like one you would only hear in a play, and never in real life.

“Two-Headed” is fascinating and well-acted. Emotionally powerful? Not as much as it would like to be. Able to change an audience’s opinion on an issue? No. We already knew Mountain Meadows was bad; do we need to be told again?

One of the few plays I've seen that were performed without intermission -- and another one was also at this theater, "How I Learned to Drive." This may not strike you as interesting, but after a while, you start appreciating even the slightest deviation from the norm.

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