PROVO — Brothers is a new play by J. Scott Bronson, about the eons-old sibling rivalry between Jesus and Satan. The play is divided into four scenes–the first, as the two converse in the pre-mortal world about their Father’s recently presented Plan; the second, as Christ is tempted in the desert; the third takes place in Gethsemane, and the fourth at the gates of hell.
While there are nitpicky details one could focus on in the production itself—the minimalist, geometric set design looks great in the very intimate Covey space, for instance, even if the creaking boards were distractingly loud—most of this play’s strengths and all of its greatest weaknesses come down to the writing. Bronson has a handful of truly fascinating, even profound moments in this script–things that make you see this grand story in a new way, or which reverberate powerfully with the familiarity of truth; there is one particular moment in the climax of the third scene that was, for me, without a doubt the highlight of the play. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these moments to sustain a full-length piece.
Most of this play is a pretty conventional, conservative Mormon understanding of the roles of Christ and Satan. The language is too formal and scriptural for its own good; instead of grounding the piece in myth and archetype, or turning its two lofty subjects into real and relatable human beings, Brothers settles for a dramatic style that reads something like Platonic dialogue–there are often interesting ideas here, but there is no dramatic shaping, no arc, no beats within the scenes, no progression, not enough specifics to ground these universals, and it isn’t long before these conversations about theological abstractions start to get a bit tedious.
As Jesus and Satan, David Hanson and Elwon Bakly give serviceable performances, but the characters are still too fundamentally two-dimensional to be thoroughly engaging. Christ is good and dignified and serious in a very wholesome 1950s way, and Satan is angry and bad and mischievous–although he’s definitely more well-rounded and interesting than Christ, and it’s Elwon that shines in the performance (it’s Satan’s story, and the tragedy of his fall, that is the real subject of the piece; perhaps the singular Brother might have been a better title). I felt a bit sympathetic towards Satan when, in the first scene, he tells Jesus that He doesn’t give their Father credit–that there are depths and complexities to the Father that aren’t acknowledged. Why is it that God must always be a cardboard cutout of all that is safely just and true? Wasn’t Christ a revolutionary in His time on earth? Isn’t He now? Why aren’t there more faithful (but varied) interpretations of the character and nature of God, if our purpose on earth is to come to know Him and become like Him?
Indeed, all of my biggest problems with Brothers come down to its portrayal of God, Christ, and the Plan of Salvation, as understoond within the framework of Mormonism. Jesus is one-note and thoroughly conservative, and each line is delivered like an authoritative Liam Neeson (the devil, of course, is the only one afforded a true sense of humor). The final scene of the play sees Jesus and Satan at the gates of hell; Satan doesn’t want to go in, and Christ is there to witness his entrance. He tells Satan, “You’ve made your choice.” There is no going back, and Satan is damned by a decision made eons in the past. In effect, the final scene negates the Atonement which was suggested to have taken place at the conclusion of the preceding scene. But here there is no forgiveness–not because Satan chooses not to change, or because he sincerely continues to believe that he is right and that everyone else is wrong, but simply because God will not forgive. In the scene in Gethsemane (the best scene of the play) Satan says he has come to try and stop Christ from going through the agony of the Atonement, for His own good; Jesus will not be swayed. The final scene suggests to me that, perhaps, in this play, Satan won out in that garden confrontation–if there is an Atonement in the world of Brothers, it is apparently not powerful enough to save all. And if God is not great enough to forgive anyone who wants to change, how can He be God?
The significance of Brothers is that it is courageous enough to ask these questions, to delve into these matters. If it is not as courageous, or not as theologically accurate as I think it should be, it should also be recognized that each of us has a unique and personal understanding of the overarching narrative of our faith, and we each construct our own theology.
While I have troubles with this play, it was clear in the talkback session following the performance that there were many others in the audience who were moved, challenged, and made to reexamine and see their faith in a new light by Brothers, and if a piece has such an effect on even one person I think it is worthwhile.
As a sort of an endnote, Bronson’s play recalls, in many ways, Eric Samuelsen’s The Plan, which looks at a handful of scenes from the Old Testament, all about women, and all providing fascinating, unique, and uplifting insights into the Plan of Salvation; it is exciting, challenging, moving, inspiring, even quite funny at times. The Plan was scheduled for the 2009-2010 Covey Blackbox season, but was not performed for various reasons; hopefully it will see a production very soon. For me, Samuelsen gets right the things that Brothers doesn’t–but I still admire anyone willing to share with others their imaginative exploration of faith.
Brothers plays through March 27th (M,Th,F,Sa) at 7:30 PM and Saturdays at 2 PM. Performances take place in the Brinton Black Box of the Covey Center for the Arts located at 425 West Center Street in Provo. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased by phone (801-852-7007) or online at CoveyCenter.org.