[gss-content-box color=”yellow”]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! [/box]

CEDAR CITY — The first line in the marketing blurb for Frankie Little Hardin’s The Greater Love, the first staged reading in the 2012 New American Playwrights Project at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, reads as follows:

“Based on historical fact, The Greater Love revolves around Frederick Douglass and the women in his life…”

However, once the reading begins, it takes just a few short moments to realize that this new work is less about this famous man and more about the women who choose to love him—and the heartache, sacrifice and despair that comes from that choice.

The story opens in the moments before Ottilie Assing (played with incredible finesse by Monica Bell), a German journalist who was Douglass’s lover for 28 years, takes her life.  As she converses with the ghost of Douglass’s wife, Anna Murray (a powerful, proud and sorrowful Nakeisha Daniel), the regret and pain that mar her long relationship with Douglass color her every word and action, leading her to drink cyanide on the 28th anniversary of the day she met Douglass for the very first time.

Flashback, 28 years to that very day.  Relationships are quickly defined.  Frederick Douglass (Corey Jones) is in his intellectual prime.  Anna is the wife that has been left behind.  Rosetta (Darcee Warner) is her father’s daughter, worshiping all that he says and does.  When Ottilie enters a house already divided, meeting Frederick for the first time, it is the instant connection of two great minds.

As the play progresses, Hardin speeds through the next 30 years, highlighting key moments in Ottilie and Frederick’s relationship, as well as the world events that informed their daily lives (including the Abolition movement and the Civil War). While great philosophical ideals are discussed (including slavery, freedom, love, the existence of God, the essence of mankind, the purpose of life and the complex relationship between blacks and whites), the focus of the story is on the personal lives and relationships of all four characters.

It is in this focus that I found the biggest questions, and the biggest struggle.  A continuing theme throughout the play is the idea that Frederick Douglass is a great man, the kind of man that is produced only once a generation and who is doing great work.  It is also postulated that his “great man”-ness should inspire some sort of special devotion from the women in his life.  As Frederick becomes more and more tunnel-visioned by his own sense of importance, he pleads, cajoles and demands a higher level of support, respect and sacrifice from his wife and his mistress, even as he gives them little in return.

This question of whether or not great works by an important man justify a multitude of actions that society normally abhors definitely still rings true in today’s society.  Hardin’s play has the potential to inspire the audience to ask difficult and poignant questions. (I personally was quite riled up at the end and my companion and I had a glorious, provocative discussion afterwards.)  At the moment, however, as a play is still in progress, it is, understandably, still figuring out the best ways to raise those questions.  The biggest obstacle at the moment is with the final scene.  After presenting the vast majority of the play as linear realism, Hardin returns to the literary device of combining the living and non-living worlds in order to tie up the play and have its greatest philosophical discussion: the question of who had the greatest love for Frederick.

Though the idea of bookending the play with this literary device is potentially helpful in the writing—and definitely convenient—it is jarring and awkward in its presentation and leads to a discussion among the characters that is better left to the audience.  While Hardin attempts to neatly tie up the story, the heavy-handed answers at the end seemingly give a stamp of approval to the heart wrenching actions and sacrifices of these women. This lessens the necessity of the audience to wrestle with some fascinating questions: Is one demonstration of love is better than the other? Was one woman a better support and companion than the other? Even more thought-provoking, did both woman suffer and sacrifice in vain for a man who could not—or would not—deserve it.  From the discussion after the show (and if you go to any of the staged readings at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, absolutely stay for the discussion afterwards), it became clear that while the foundations are there, the final moments cripple the story’s ultimate potential.  Personally, I am greatly interested to see how Hardin continues to develop the ending.

Director Kymberley Mellen does a great job in creating the presentation of the reading.  Moving the actors away from a more traditional music stand presentation, Mellen helps distinguish the many locations described in the script by, with the help of rudimentary set pieces and props, distinctly delineating parts of the stage as certain locales. Though the years are clearly announced by the narrator (Michael A. Harding), the physicality of the actors, specifically Daniel, greatly helps marking the passage of time in the staged reading atmosphere.  Above all, the removal of the music stands in favor of simple staging also helps emphasize the focus on the relationships between characters.

The Greater Love digs into a little-known story in American history, a story that has the potential to strongly resonate with the questions and issues of today’s society.  As a solid opening to the 20th season of the New American Playwrights Project, it effectively demonstrates the impact of new works as well as the potential of theatre to raise important and interesting questions.

The staged reading of The Greater Love, part of The New American Playwrights Project at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, plays on August 10 and 29, 2012, at 10 AM in the Auditorium Theatre on the campus of Southern Utah University.  Tickets are $10. For more information about this production and other staged readings of plays in progress at this year’s New American Playwrights Project, visit http://www.bard.org/plays/napp2013.html.