Sometimes the best thing to write about is the thing that scares you the most.
Tonight, at 8:00 p.m. MST, I have a new play opening in downtown Salt Lake. It’s a living room drama set in the very near future—2019, to be exact—and it places a faithful LDS couple in a precarious position. Abigail and Jacob Husten, just minutes before the play opens, are called to participate in a Church pilot program restoring polygamy to Church practice. Eventually they accept the calling, and they invite a dear friend of Abigail’s—her favorite grad school student, Heather—to join them in it. Suddenly we have a play, a complex series of human interactions that, I hope, raise questions and conversation among those who come to see it.
Polygamy, as a topic and a practice, has always frightened me somewhat. Which is why I’ve known for some time that I needed to write about it, and also why I’ve kept putting it off. Of course, I can’t help but think about it in dramatic terms: character and plot and obstacle. There’s so much to mine. I can’t imagine those relationships being easy to maintain. Historically, some unions went incredibly well while others simply did not. Such is the way with relationships in general, whether plural or singular.
The living room drama has become a standard of sorts in the American theatre. The U.S. has a rich tradition of bringing drama to the home-front, putting personal crises front and center on stage, at the same time that they are closed off and intimate so that the neighbors can’t hear. All the greats—Miller, O’Neill, Hellman, Williams—demonstrated their finest moments in the front rooms of middle class America. There is something intrinsically voyeuristic about living room plays, and that’s why we love them. We want to be on the inside, in the know. We enjoy being flies on the wall as relationships begin or unravel, as children grow and leave home, as lives begin and end. It’s part of what makes Death of a Salesman so engrossing, and why we’re drawn to the next generation of living room dramas: Clybourne Park and Clean House. Can the setting of a play really make that much of a impact on the drama itself? Yes. We’re reminded of our own homes, our own experiences. We put ourselves in the places of the characters and wonder how a scene might play out at home, or how we might deal with similar circumstances. We share in joys and failures on stage because we’ve experienced such things in our own homes.
I didn’t realize until recently that Pilot Program is, for all intents and purposes, a living room play. Sometimes a drama, sometimes a comedy, all of its action is contained beneath the vaulted ceilings of a five-bedroom craftsman house in suburban Salt Lake City.
While I usually gravitate to historical settings and stories, I needed to explore polygamy in a contemporary setting. With the recent changes to Utah law touching on both gay and plural marriage, I was struck by the plausibility, if not likelihood, that a contemporary setting lends to this story. Plausibility and relatability. It has, at least for me, made the thorny topic much more accessible. I have spent much of the last two years thinking about polygamy in terms of its fundamentals and logistics. I’ve attempted to break down the experience to its simplest elements: Awkward dates. Days on a calendar. A leaking kitchen faucet. It makes sense, at least to me, for this story to unfurl in a living room.
If you’re anywhere near Salt Lake, tickets are still available for Plan-B Theatre Company’s production of Pilot Program on April 16, 18, and 19. Visit planbtheatre.org for more information.