What if — as well as a description of birth order and an indicator of hierarchy — the appellation “firstborn” was also a title? Could the Heavenly Father assign this role to any of his children? This is a question confronted by the audience of “Brothers,” a new play which opened at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo on March 11th. The play runs through next weekend, March 25, 26, and 27, and I encourage your attendance after I went to see it on Friday. The playwright and director, J. Scott Bronson, intends it as part of a trilogy of plays, the first of which, Stones, won the Association for Mormon Letters 2001 best drama.
“Brothers” is a retelling of the story of two of the foremost personalities in the heavenly realms — Jesus and Lucifer. The two are not named in the play, but call each other “brother.” Bronson’s striking script is never overstated, and depends upon the intelligence and familiarity of the audience with Mormon and scriptural themes to make connections. I very much enjoyed this subtlety, which allowed the story to unfold without announcing what was happening or locating where the action was taking place, but let the viewers discover it on their own.
Bronson is playful with Mormon theology in this work, never straying from the bounds of LDS orthodoxy, but sometimes approaching uncomfortable ambiguities commonly found in Mormonism. It was especially fascinating to follow Bronson’s ruminations on the Plan of Salvation presented by his Satan character as he expounded upon his reasoning for rejecting the plan and his ideas for “improving” it. Another potent scene again involved Satan mocking humanity’s constant querying about the presence of suffering in the world:
“Why, why, why?” …mortals waste so much time on the most pathetic questions.
“Why does it have to be this way?” It doesn’t HAVE to be this way, it just IS!
“Why did Mommy have to die?” Why WOULDN’T she die? Everybody dies.
“Why is the sky blue?” Who CARES?!
“Why, why, why?” WHY NOT?? Is there anything more pathetic?
The symbolism in the play was elegant — from the stage set to the four simple and beautiful centerpieces changed with each scene, to the understated change in costume done by removing an outer coat.
Every artistic work has its weak points, and this one was no exception, so as a reviewer I am compelled to present them. Following the play, the playwright/director and actors made themselves available for questions from the audience. During this session, Dave Hanson who played the Jesus part explained that he approached the character as being human with touches of divinity, instead of vice-versa, as the Savior is usually presented. Hanson did an excellent job of portraying this mortality, and the all-too-human sibling rivalry which was a major theme of the play. However, he never quite reached the spark of divinity I think he aspired to. His almost spritely excitement about the plan in the pre-existent realm disappeared completely once he entered mortality — and I would have loved to have seen traces of this personality carried over throughout the play. At times I felt that Hanson presented as morose when he was going for majestic.
Elwon Bakly, who played the other brother, has a rich, gorgeous stage voice. But since the play was presented in a small (less than 100 seat) theater, it completely overpowered the space. I wished that he would have expressed strong emotion through more nuance in his vocal range rather than in volume. Since the theater was in a half-round, the blocking should have been more sophisticated, allowing all of the seats an equal experience. I sat in one of the side seats, and there were long periods of time during the most dramatic scenes when I never saw either of the actors’ faces.
Nonetheless, I found the play an engrossing treatment of a uniquely Mormon theology of the relationship between Jesus and his brother, Lucifer. It might give further ammunition to evangelicals who decry this aspect of our doctrine, but I applaud the exploration and am convinced that it will be enjoyable and thought-provoking to both serious and casual purveyors of Mormonism, as well as those with an LDS background.
The actors answering questions following Friday’s showing of “Brothers”