PROVO – The life of a young lay minister was forever changed when he came across what he called “a very strange book” in 1830. But this book “was the principal means, in the hands of God, of directing the entire course of my future life,” as related in Thom Duncan’s insightful and often moving one-man religious play Preposterous Parley P! The very strange book was the Book of Mormon, and the life that was altered was that of early Mormon leader Parley P. Pratt.
While the LDS faithful know that Pratt was one of the Church’s first apostles, he was also an accomplished author, editor and lyricist. Pratt wrote “Jesus, Once of Humble Birth” and “Come, O Thou King of Kings,” and the pamphlets and books he wrote, printed, and distributed converted thousands. Pratt also helped devise the Deseret Alphabet. It is from Pratt’s moving autobiography that Duncan crafted his engaging play that he performed at the Covey Center for the Arts as part of its annual Dinner and Drama series.
It’s obvious that Duncan has great affection for the early Church leader, and the play he wrote uplifted and amused his enraptured many in the audience. He even bares a resemblance to Pratt in photographs. But on the second performance of the five-night run, Duncan proved to be a more accomplished playwright than performer. He occasionally stumbled through lines and swallowed ends of sentences, but still managed to convincingly portray Pratt and a few other characters by changing his tonal inflections and shifting his posture.
In an interview published before the show to promote this production, Duncan explained that he wrote the one-hour Preposterous Parley P! in 1980 and performed it many times, but hasn’t “done it in 20 years.” It would appear that Duncan has been seen earlier in more polished performances.
The play begins during Pratt’s incarceration with his missionary companion, a man named Higginson, just prior to Pratt’s 1857 assassination. Pratt was in jailed accused of stealing laundry. At Higginson’s request, Pratt reads from his journal which was published posthumously as his autobiography. For the framework of the play, Duncan unfolds elements of Pratt’s life to retell his conversion and share a first-hand account of the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Pratt encountered the Book of Mormon while traveling through New York and nearly entirely read it while seated on a tree stump. “I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep.” With the book, Pratt said: “My joy was now full.” Soon thereafter he traveled to Palmyra, determined to meet Joseph Smith. Pratt was baptized just five months after the founding of the Church.
Pratt had a deep love and respect for the prophet, and this is clearly seen in Duncan’s portrayal of Pratt. On an earlier occasion Pratt was jailed with Joseph, and the prophet rebuked his guards who had used “dreadful blasphemies and filthy language.” Duncan then majestically takes on the role of the prophet, with what Pratt called a “voice of thunder,” to forcefully declare: “SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit. . . . Cease such talk, or you or I die THIS INSTANT!” This story movingly concludes with Pratt’s now-famous quote about Joseph: “Dignity and majesty have I seen but once, as it stood in chains, at midnight, in a dungeon in an obscure village of Missouri.”
In one amusing account, Duncan re-enacts Pratt calling a judge to repentance while Pratt was on trial then began to openly sing a hymn and continued disinterested in the courtroom proceedings. Later Pratt outwits a hound dog named Stu-boy who had been chasing Pratt. He imitated the dog’s master, yelling to the dog “Get ’im, Stu-boy! Go get ’im!” and pointed in the direction of a forest. Pratt then ran away from the forest and made a clean getaway.
Pratt wrote the first published work of Mormon fiction, A Dialogue Between Joseph Smith and the Devil, which Duncan weaved into his production. The clever and often hilarious discourse explained how the Devil believed Joseph was disrupting the Devil’s stronghold. Duncan takes on a pompous air to play the devil. “You are causing many persons to think who never thought before,” the Devil tells Joseph, prompting audience laughs. “But I, sir, have the boldness to oppose you by all the lawful means which I have in my power.”
In a post-performance dialogue with the audience, the actor said he recognizes what a unique opportunity he has presenting the one-man show and explained that his audiences nearly always have included direct descendants of Pratt. Interestingly enough on this evening there were two families who could claim to have Pratt in their family tree.
Duncan has won awards for his theatrical writing, including the 1999 Mormon Arts Festival best original play award. He is also the author of Moroni Smith in the Land of Zarahemla, a young-adult paperback. Duncan’s other religious-based plays include Let There Be Love: the Sublime Yet Tragic Love Story of Joseph and Emma Smith (1976) and Matters of the Heart (1986).