SPRINGVILLE — Zion Theatre Company is a unique theatre group in Utah. Although family-friendly live entertainment is not hard to find in this state, ZTC is unique for its explicit mission to produce uplifting drama that not only entertains, but provokes thoughts and conversations. ZTC is also focused on works by Latter-day Saint artists, and works from non-LDS playwrights whose work coincides with LDS thought and philosophy.
ZTC’s latest offering is A Roof Overhead, written by LDS playwright Mahonri Stewart. The play tells the story of the Fielding family, who rents out their basement to a local graduate student, Sam Forest, because of financial difficulties arising due to the rough economy. The Fieldings and their three children are an observant LDS family who must learn to live with atheist Sam and her influence that she begins to wield on each member of the family. Most concerning to the parents in the family is Sam’s influence on Abish, their doubting and sometimes wayward teenage daughter.
Jennifer Leigh Mustoe and G. Randall King play Daisy and Maxwell Fielding, respectively. It took me a while to warm up to both actors’ performances. But by the latter half of the first act, I had come to accept Mustoe and King as the head of the family. King plays a strong, yet accepting, patriarch who seems to love all of his children for who they are. Mustoe is a great counterpart to her stage husband. However, Mustoe’s best performance comes in the final few scenes of the play, where she removes all inhibitions and powerfully reacts to events swirling around her and her family. Mustoe and King are fine parents, but their chemistry as a couple took much of the evening to develop.
The portrayals of the Fielding children vary in quality. I thought that daughters Naomi Fielding (played by Penny Pendleton) and Abish Fielding (Jana Lee Stubbs) were believable and endearing. Pendleton feels like many young 20-something LDS women that I’ve known in my time and Stubbs convincingly plays a teenager who is trying to find her own identity. Both have a genuine affection for their stage family and for the other characters that they grow close to. On the other hand, Tyrone Svedin‘s performance as Joel Fielding is not as strong. I found it hard to believe that someone who is supposedly a PhD student would act so immaturely. As played by Svedin, Joel’s behavior is more appropriate for a 12-year-old than a man in his mid-20′s (such as when he and his sister argue over a Netflix DVD). He also seemed to contribute little to the mood of the scenes, like when Joel confronts Sam in the middle of the night (as Joel eats cereal). I feel that at the end of the play, I didn’t know Joel as well as I did the other members in the family.
The non-family characters are some of the more interesting characters in the play. James C. Jones had a nuanced performance as Tyrell Howard, Naomi’s African American LDS boyfriend. My favorite scene with Jones was when he was meeting Daisy and Maxwell for the first time. Jones felt just uncomfortable enough to show some trepidation at meeting his girlfriend’s parents, but was comfortable enough to be endearing.
Sarah-lucy Hill is likely the strongest actor in the cast. From her first scene until the end of the production, she was comfortable with her character’s backstory and actions. Hill comfortably played Ashera, Sam’s best friend, who serves as a bridge between the Fieldings and Sam. Hill most effectively fulfilled this duty in the second act, particularly as she developed her relationship with the Fielding family.
Finally, Rebecca Minson was a useful antagonist who believes wholeheartedly that her actions—although painful in the short term—would be beneficial for all the characters in the long run. Minson also carefully developed genuine relationships with the other characters, especially in the midnight scene with Abish. In all, Minson had the most difficult job of the evening. She was forced to make a character who does some pretty mean-spirited things seem socially acceptable and even occasionally endearing.
Because this is a new script, I feel like I have to comment on Stewart’s work as the playwright. Stewart is certainly capable of crafting some powerful scenes, like when Sam and Ashera are invited to dinner, or when Naomi returns from her mission. However, much of the dialogue is forced and unnatural (the best example of this is seen in the Fieldings’ reactions towards Ashera’s name). Stewart is also heavy handed in his foreshadowing. This is clearly seen through Naomi’s premonitions or in the line, “You want to be accepted for your own beliefs.” Both so obviously give clues to future scenes that, when those events happen, any surprise that the audience should have had is completely lost.
Stewart, as indicated by his note in the program, seems intent to write a work that serves as an imitation of the larger conflict that observant Mormons feel in modern American society. This is a society where they want to be accepted, even as it grows more divergent from LDS viewpoints and practices. As a microcosm of modern LDS life, I feel like A Roof Overhead has its moments. However, sometimes the play feels too allegoric. The characters seem like symbols (especially Sam and Tyrell) and not real human beings. The play is most successful when it focuses on interpersonal relationships and the tension of a gospel that asks imperfect people to strive for perfection. However, these sorts of moments are not common enough as Stewart seems to easily get mired in talking about social movements and Mormon apologetics. I also feel that the frequent use of LDS jargon would be a barrier to non-LDS audiences (one scene has the terms “CES,” “intelligences,” “seminary,” and “Relief Society” all used without any explanation). Despite these criticisms, I clearly enjoyed A Roof Overhead more than the last play I saw that was penned by Stewart.
Finally, G. Randall King’s work as director was quite admirable and better than what I usually see when a cast member also serves as director. King has worked hard to help his onstage family have just enough love and togetherness to seem like a tightknit LDS family, but just enough conflict that the play doesn’t turn into The Waltons or Leave It to Beaver. I thought that the direction was best in two moments that could have easily descended into chaos: the scene where the Fieldings confront Sam and the moment when they invite her to dinner.
Overall, A Roof Overhead has its flaws, but the cast and director do a fine job with the material they were given. It’s a suitable show for the intimate Little Brown Theater (which seats 50), and not a bad way to pass an evening in southern Utah County.