SALT LAKE CITY — Mormons. That buttoned-up, straight-laced, hard right bunch of religious zealots who become increasingly more conservative as one zeroes in on Utah County. In The Righteous and Very Real Housewives of Utah County, the audiences meets the Pratt women in Payson, smack dab in the heart of Mormondom.
The story follows the Pratts through the drama that ensues when their widowed matriarch, Emma (Anne Cullimore Decker), is engaged to marry a non-Mormon man named Dimitri (Jim Dale). While Emma’s daughter, Joy (April Fossen), is up in arms that her mother would even consider replacing her father with another man, other family members are upset about the man’s unfamiliar background. Still others are panicked in anticipation of the public airing of dirty laundry that will inevitably happen when the entire extended family gets together in one reception hall.
The Pratt women are each fit familiar molds: Joy is an energetic and opinionated woman who dons a smile as she masks her ideas in a conservative Mormon mold, especially as she and her husband are prepare to leave on a Mormon mission to Mexico. Joy has two sisters-in-law: Ramona (Holly Fowers), the terrifying woman who wears horrible Deseret Industry dresses with clunky black shoes, has been pregnant since her wedding night, and disapproves of anyone attending this play; and Lupita (Anne Louise Brings), the Mormon who grew up abroad and managed to claim the belief system without being tainted by the Utah Mormon culture. Joy’s daughter, Jena (Nicki Nixon) is a liberal Mormon vegan who insists that even with her questions and doubts, she has the right to claim a place within her culture and beliefs. And then there’s Joy’s daughter-in-law, Wendy (Haley McCormick), who is from Idaho and doesn’t believe faith and critical thought can coexist.
As the women prepared for Emma’s wedding, the audience gained a deeper understanding of what Wendy had explained in her opening monologue: that none of these women was just as she seemed on the surface. Within the simple backdrop of a generic suburban home (set designed Halee Rasmussen), each woman grappled with her relationship with both her family and the Mormon Church. Throughout the evening, it became clear that very often the two institutions are inseparable.
I found that the play’s strongest point was in presenting the conflict between different styles of living the same religion. In their very stereotypical Utah county attire (costumes designed by Melanie Nelson), each actress gave a strong portrayal of a distinct style of Mormon, and the play spoke to me more about their interactions than their specific issues. The Righteous and Very Real Housewives of Utah County didn’t necessarily cover any new themes – the characters’ conflicts touched on the Church’s attitude toward homosexuality, the pre-1978 ban on blacks holding the Priesthood, the role of women, the Word of Wisdom (the Mormon ban on coffee, alcohol, and smoking) – all of which have been given quite a bit of public attention in recent years. But, what this play brings to the table is a new look at how Mormons interact with people they care about who have a different take on “absolute truth.”
While all of the acting was strong, I enjoyed the play most during the interactions between Emma (Anne Cullimore Decker) and Lupita (Anne Louise Brings). The two had an endearing rapport that had me alternating between laughter and sentimentality, as Emma softened her hardline dogmatisms through Lupita’s feisty encouragement.
The Righteous and Very Real Housewives of Utah County, written by Miguel Santana and based on his eponymous book, and directed by Alexandra Harbold, surveyed such a broad range of issues within Mormondom that it could easily get sidetracked as the script meanders into different tangents. So, I found it refreshing that Santana and Harbold were able to still present the issues within engaging and tangible characters and always focused on the story first. The only character who I found incongruous was Wendy. After she narrates the humorous opening sequence, metaphorically describing each of the Pratt women’s personalities in terms of their relationship with green Jell-O salad, Wendy becomes a minor character. While each of the other characters’ duality and motivations are explored, Wendy’s verve seems to disappear entirely as she goes from being the leather boot sporting descendant of Idaho apostates to an unquestioning, housewife. Perhaps that abrupt transition is the whole point of her character, but from watching the play, I got the impression that Wendy was given more attention in the book.
Harbold directed a strong cast whose group chemistry made the play’s sometimes heavy subject matter enjoyable. The very gifted cast breathed life into their relationships and topics that could have felt tired without such vibrant actors. For a pleasant and often quite humorous look at Utah Mormon culture, you can’t go wrong with The Righteous and Very Real Housewives of Utah County.