PROVO — I had some pre-conceived notions about the play, WWJD, written by Anna Lewis, being performed at the Provo Theater. I thought: (1) WWJD was going to be about LDS people, probably a family, (2) It was going to be uber smarmy. I was wrong on both counts.
I am struggling to actually describe it without it sounding really weird. Well, it is a little weird, but I mean that in a good way. See, the entire play has Jesus right there, in the scenes, in His white robes, bare feet, long hair, and compassionate expression on His face. Jesus, played lovingly and brilliantly by Jason Jensen, is in every scene. Oh, and another thing—He never says a word.
The play involves four roommates: Tom (Adam Buchanan), Max (Kristen Buchanan), Seth (Seth Lawrence), and TJ (Cameron Fuller). All these actors are very believable as roommates who struggle with issues like who’s going to wash the dishes. And though it sounds odd, it’s pretty amazing when Seth introduces Jesus by telling Tom, “Oh no, I didn’t do the dishes. Jesus did.” It’s odd because at first, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Then there is a short replay of Jesus at the kitchen sink. And it seems really normal. It helps that it never occurs to Seth that this is a strange thing, the Savior being right in their apartment. Seth goes on to tell Tom in detail how Jesus was very thorough in His dishwashing, using all different kinds of soaps including bubble bath. Seth relates how Jesus told him He was no respecter of soaps.
Each roommate, one an atheist, one a non-practicing Jew, one a rebellious type, and a young woman who describes herself as someone who doesn’t deserve to date nice guys, can see Jesus and can hear Him speak to them. They relate Jesus’s deeds to Tom, the one roommate and the only character in the play who can’t see or hear Jesus. Tom tries to see Jesus. Oh, how he tries. He often talks to Him after Jesus has already left the room, a somewhat expected plot device. Tom is pretty frustrated that everyone, even the homeless man, played caringly by Thomas Gray, Jack played by Trevor Christensen, and the other ensemble members, Davey Morrison Dillard, and Lorien Morrison, can also see the Savior. Even the girl he’d like to date, Samantha, the overly-zealous Bible-carrying Christian (who also has hair that looks way too poofy, according to Max) can see Jesus. Or as TJ and Seth call Him, The Chief.
None of those who can see Jesus are at all surprised when He skateboards, sings in a karaoke bar, plays miniature golf, or, as I’ve related, does the dishes. He also drinks ginger ale for breakfast, and this is the only thing the roommates think is odd. “Ginger ale for breakfast?” they keep asking. A funny running gag. However, they never question that He’s the Savior and when they ask Him to hang out with them, and He does joyfully and willingly, they are all totally, cavalierly okay with it. Jesus, in this play, is One Cool Dude.
You might think this sounds sacrilegious. Let me assure, it is not. Far from it. The entire time, we can see that Jesus loves these people, that He is teaching them lessons they don’t even realize are being demonstrated in their lives. He turns the beer into water when TJ lifts a bottle to drink it at the karaoke bar. This is done by the snap of His fingers, but not because drinking is bad. It’s because TJ is underage.
This and many other aspects of the play are why I don’t think this is an LDS play. It isn’t even a religious play. Jesus plays the main character, but He is in many ways part of an ensemble. It is for each member of the audience to interpret what this means to him or her.
Samantha, the Bible carrying prospective girlfriend, provides an interesting aspect to the play, but I’m not totally sure she was necessary. She does convey the popular idea in the world that as long as you carry a Bible, and refuse to dance with the notion that it’s not proper, you’re a good person. And that is one of the interesting parts of the play. Anna Lewis subtly and effectively introduces and deals with many of the token concerns that people have about being Christian: that Jesus doesn’t protect His people, that He is to blame for all the bad things in the world, and that He isn’t available to those who need Him when they need Him most.
Two parts of the play were particularly powerful for me. Max, a rather wild young woman, comes home from a date with a black eye. Her roommates, especially Tom, are horrified that this has happened. TJ then tells the other guys that Max pretty much asked for it because she chooses the scuzbags to date. And why shouldn’t she? She’s pretty wild herself. Tom and Seth get angry at TJ, but only Tom wants to help her. TJ and Seth are angry at Jesus that He didn’t fix things for Max. After all, He knew what was going to happen before it ever did. Why didn’t He stop it? While Tom is comforting Max offstage, the two other roommates actually scream at Jesus to leave, and push Him out the door. It is a powerful, moving, heart-wrenching scene.
The other scene that was amazingly touching for me was when Jesus tells Max, through a short, somewhat confusing puppet show, that she is not the wild, worthless woman she thinks she is. Jesus pulls out a camera phone and takes a picture of Max that shows how He sees her. She looks at the picture, then emotionally starts to sob and leaves the room. Gulp. That one got to me.
In the end, Tom (surely a reference to Doubting Thomas from the New Testament) never sees Jesus. But he helps a homeless man, he truly cares for Max, and shows what can only be called Christlike behavior—the only one in the show that really seems to follow the Savior. That he still can’t see Jesus is addressed somewhat, but Lewis leaves it to the audience to ponder this without offering any real answers. I like this. We all have our own interpretation of this, and she isn’t forcing any one solution.
There were a few problems with the show, which interestingly enough I shared with the cast and director Tony Gunn afterward. They asked the audience to help them with feedback because they wanted to make it the best show possible. I, ready with notes, shared my concerns, which are:
It is unclear what the relationship is between all these characters at the outset of the play. I wasn’t sure if they were brothers and a sister, roommates, or what. I suggested that a line be added in the beginning of the play that if the roommate that wasn’t washing dishes didn’t shape up, they’d sell his contract.
Also, between every scene, set pieces were moved onstage and off, which was distracting, and to my eye, wasn’t completely necessary. The theater went dark for these scene changes and modern music with a Jesus theme (“Your Own Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode, for instance) played and that made it less bothersome. I suggested that some set pieces could just stay on the wings of the stage.
The ending of the show came a little too quickly, too. It was sweet, but could have been stretched out a bit. I wasn’t sure if it really was the end. However, this could have been that I didn’t want it to end. Who’s ready to say good-bye to a skateboarding, dishwashing Jesus?
Except for these few issues, the show was flawless. It is a clean, poignant, thought-provoking play. Little kids were in the audience and they didn’t squawk with boredom. The show is appropriate for all audiences and I would encourage families, church youth groups, school groups—anyone—to flock to this show. There were less than 20 people in the audience when my husband and I attended last night and that is a real shame. They deserve a packed house and those who pack that house will be happy they went.
A few words the lovely Provo Theater: it’s small, maybe 100 seats, and provides an intimacy that big theaters can’t. Also, as I’ve stated in other reviews, I love that the actors don’t have to wear mics. Ah, the sound of actors projecting their lines. Bliss.
New Play Project is a non-profit theatre company based in Provo, Utah, committed to producing values-driven works for the Mormon audience and to helping aspiring playwrights, actors and directors launch careers in theatre. It is refreshing that good playwrights (and Lewis is) are getting a chance to get their work produced.