LITTLE HAPPY SECRETS: A little play with a deep message

 READINGS / WORKS IN DEVELOPMENT: We love to see new work developed by Utah theatre artists. On occasion, we are invited to performances of pieces (sometimes still in development) that are staged as a reading. These events differ from standard productions in that more focus is placed on the script, and less on the technical elements of the production. With that said, we’d like to shift the focus of our “reviews” for readings. More emphasis will be placed on the script and at the end we’ll comment a bit on the production. It is our hope that more Utah theatre patrons will seek out opportunities to participate in, and encourage, the development of new theatre in our great state. Thank you for reading!

SALT LAKE CITY — The Fearless Fringe Festival is a fairly new project from Salt Lake Acting Company intent on showcasing Utah playwrights. This past weekend (August 26-28) three productions—each at different stages of development—were introduced to Utah audiences in the Chapel Theatre of SLAC’s beautiful theatre space. Tickets were $12/show or $24 for all three. The UTBA saw just two of the three plays. Fingers are crossed that next year we can cover all three.

Little Happy Secrets

Synopsis/Storyline: Claire (Emily Bell) returns from her LDS mission and moves in with her old friend Brennan (Burnworth) only to discover that she has developed confusing feelings for her. As they get further on in the semester at BYU and Brennan enters a committed relationship with Carter (Ungerman), Claire realizes that she is jealous because she not only loves Brennan, she is in love with Brennan. She tells no one of this realization until Christmas vacation when she confides in her sister Natalie (Groves). Claire then returns to BYU and contents herself with acting as a third wheel to the couple created by Brennan and Carter, who are now engaged to be married. This continues until Claire gets a call that Natalie’s infant daughter has passed away from SIDS. In the emotional moment before leaving for the funeral, Brennan tries to comfort Claire, who impulsively kisses her. Brennan’s horrified reaction prompts Claire to take a leave of absence from BYU to stay with Natalie in Seattle. This continues until Brennan’s wedding invitation arrives with a personalized note suggesting her hesitation to marry, which prompts Claire to make a frenzied overnight drive to Arizona. She arrives just in time to see Brennan and Carter emerge from the Mesa LDS temple as man and wife and returns home on the brink of despair before rallying on in an attempt to reclaim her life.

Reaction to the Script: Having listened to the Little Happy Secrets podcast two years ago, I knew what to expect but was still pleasantly impressed with its dramaturgical construction and the imbedded humor and pathos. It is certainly no surprise that the play won the 2009 Association for Mormon Letters Drama award and has received consistent attention ever since.  Having read and seen a considerable amount of contemporary Mormon drama, it is my opinion that Little Happy Secrets ranks among the best, and is certainly among the very best works by female Mormon playwrights (of which there are far too few). This is not to say that the play is not good outside of the Mormon theatre genre. It is, at its heart, a story of self-discovery, and the plot is reliant on a messy love-triangle. These two elements are universally recognized and appreciated when supported by well-developed characters, thoughtful structure, and intelligent dialogue, which Little Happy Secrets has.

That said, the play does very much speak of and to its own culture. There are references to BYU, Provo, and Mormonism that are important, if not essential, to a full understanding of the characters. Claire’s vocal prayers, for instance, understood in the context of a devout young woman and return-missionary, contribute to the tragedy of her inner-turmoil. Outside of Utah and Mormonism, they could easily be misinterpreted or misunderstood as a tragedy of an unaccepting religion. On second thought, however, the play does confront the controversial understanding of the LDS Church and LDS Church culture in relation to homosexuality in a way that could lead to various interpretations, and this is, of course, one of its strengths.

Of the play’s weaknesses, there are few. The beginning is, perhaps, a bit jarring as the audience gets acquainted with Claire’s mode of storytelling, her verbal hesitations and corrections as she struggles with eloquence, but this quickly becomes a character trait associated with Claire’s honest revelations. Looking into the future of the play, there may be some difficulties with the popular culture references that date it, some of which appeared to be recognized and updated from the podcast. So, too, the play would also be dated if LDS Church culture develops a different attitude toward homosexuality and single-hood. As it stands, however, Little Happy Secrets still very much speaks to real struggles and revelations going on now.

Reaction to the Performance: Each actor’s performance was solidly delivered, and the relationships on stage were strong. Emily Bell, especially, did an exceptional job communicating Claire’s journey to self-discovery. Dave Mortensen’s direction was both insightful and thorough and went well-beyond the requirements of a staged reading. In fact, all actors were off-book, utilizing their scripts primarily as props. The blocking, too, was complete, and effective. It would take very little in terms of effort and finances to give Little Happy Secrets under Mortensen’s direction, the full production it deserves.

About Callie Oppedisano

Callie Oppedisano is an independent theatre scholar. She earned her PhD in Drama from Tufts University in 2009 after completing her dissertation titled “Worthy of Imitation: Contemporary Mormon Drama on the Latter Day Stage.” Other research interests include Irish theatre and gender and performance. She has taught at Tufts University and Eastern Nazarene College and continues to present her work at local and national conferences. She writes theatre reviews for Utah Theatre Bloggers Association, and her book reviews have appeared in Theatre Journal and Theatre Survey. She is otherwise occupied as a full-time mom to a pair of joyfully active boys.