CEDAR CITY — I’ll start by stating my prejudices. I am lucky to count the playwright, Melissa Leilani Larson as a friend. Beyond that, I am a great admirer of her work. Further still, Little Happy Secrets has been dear to me since I first listened to it on iTunes more than a year ago. I was therefore beyond thrilled when I discovered it was being put on less than a mile from my house as a Southern Utah University’s Stage II production.
If you don’t know anything about Little Happy Secrets there are few things to understand. This is a play with all Mormon characters, but it’s not about Mormons. This is a play where one of the characters is a homosexual, but it’s not about homosexuality. This play deals with issues of local and national discussion, but tells the story of our families and our best friends. This is a play about one woman’s relationship with her God, but it is also about our relationship with our God. More than all of this, however, this play is a simple love story.
It focuses on Claire, a recently returned LDS missionary, who finds herself deeply and romantically in love with her best friend and roommate at BYU, Brennan. Things become more complex for Claire as she watches Brennan launch into a relationship with a new boyfriend, Carter. Claire faces difficult questions during the course of the play. How can she relate to her family? Should she tell Brennan? What does God want her to do? Perhaps these sound trite, but they are handled with more than usual sincerity and joy. It is, after all, a play about happy little secrets.
The production is simple; no costume changes, a few lights, some nicely placed music cues, and a set made up of a doorway, a couch, and some chairs. (Stage II productions are generally student produced and are held in a forty-seat black-box theater that is used as a classroom during the day and gift shop for the Utah Shakespeare Festival during the summer months.) Nothing on the stage distracts from the story being told. As I attended a night before the official opening, I was not at all put off by a few line slips early in the show or a few ‘music to action’ timing issues. I have no doubt they will work themselves out. On the whole director TJ Penrod’s blocking choices were clear and natural in feel. However, Claire’s many (many) audience asides began to feel tiresome as time and again the action around her would freeze and she would dutifully make her way front and center to talk to us about her thoughts. I would have preferred that she stay in her place to keep the energy of the scene flowing.
All four cast members gave strong performances and their relationships with one another felt well developed. Claire, played by Jessica Winward, carries the burden of the shows text, and despite a few initial volume problems, I felt she handled the role with confidence and a solid emotional grounding. Her moments of prayer were particularly poignant.
Carter, played by Chris Frehner, is an intriguing character. By design he feels one dimensional, and is never given a chance to redeem himself. This play is Claire’s story, and she is not interested in allowing the audience form sympathies for the man she automatically distrusts. I can imagine some audience members feeling Mr. Frehner came across as flat on stage, but he filled his supporting role with just the right amounts of charm and awkwardness.
Following the show on Wednesday night, I participated in a post-show discussion. It was wonderful to hear from the actors and the director about their journey through the subject matter as it related to their own lives. Mr. Penrod expressed his greatest challenge with the production was making the choice not to make a strong political statement with the content. This choice becomes the production’s greatest strength as every audience member will be approaching the subject from their own unique perspective and will walk away having had an intensely personal experience, as I did.
I cannot overstate how hopeful I am that this play will continue to spread to audiences across Utah. Its message is beautiful and timely. It deserves more analysis than I can provide alone, especially when I am so anxious to get this review up in hopes that everyone that reads it will be inspired to see or produce the play as soon as possible. If you are in Cedar City this weekend I hope you will treat yourself to a night of laughter, heartbreak, and love at Little Happy Secrets.