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Desert Saints and Sinners

An early “official” version of the sorriest chapter in Mormon history came from Utah Governor Brigham Young himself, who blamed local Paiute Indian warriors for the September 1857 slaying of 120 all but helpless California-bound emigrants from Arkansas, Missouri, Texas and Ohio. (Seventeen children were spared.) Young‘s interpretive distancing of his disciples from what came to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre conveniently renders the Mormons as mere horrified witnesses to a Paiute charge upon an encircled train of some 40 wagons.

Later, in two separate murder trials of Mormon defendant John D. Lee, it became clear that, although the Paiutes had been involved, they were actually organized, urged on and joined by Mormon settlers, with Lee at the head. Which raises the question: What on earth were the Mormons thinking? The answers hinge, at best, on well-informed speculation upon the power of religious fervor and paranoia -- two elements that have often combined to create the molten steel from which empires are forged.

Playwright Julie Jensen grew up in Utah and is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Colonel William H. Dame of the Mormon Militia, who helped plan the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the incident from which Jensen spins her play, Two-Headed, now in a hypnotic West Coast debut at (Inside) the Ford, after having premiered in New York last year at the Women’s Project Theater. The work is dedicated, in part, to historian Juanita Brooks, whose 1950 book Mountain Meadows Massacre is still widely regarded as the most thoroughly researched and authoritative accounting of what may have happened on that Utah plain between September 7 and 11, 143 years ago. And even Brooks admits that it‘s impossible to be certain of the reasons for what transpired -- the mystery that gives Jensen’s drama its fascinating, enigmatic resonance.

There were, it seems, two attacks. The first, an assault by native tribes (possibly including territorial militia disguised as natives), was rebuffed by the emigrants, led by U.S. Army Captains Alexander Fancher and John T. Baker, who held the aggressors at bay with gunfire and by locking together the wheels of their wagon train in a defensive circle. Though able to hold their position, the emigrants were at the same time trapped without access to food or water, and with an ever-diminishing supply of ammunition.

Four days later, with the emigrants hoisting white truce flags, a party of some 100 to 200 Mormons and Paiute Indians combined, led by Lee, appeared as though to rescue the now defenseless pioneers. Lee persuaded Fancher and Baker to allow their people to be led to safety. When the settlers had moved away from the wagon circle, Lee bellowed, “Do your duty!” The escorts suddenly turned on their wards, and within half an hour the butchery was complete. The bodies, buried in shallow graves, were quickly dug up by wolves, and the issue of where and how to honor and inter the scant remains still seethes in Salt Lake City and Washington.

Were Jensen a generation older, Two-Headed might have appeared some 20 to 30 years earlier as a courtroom drama. There‘s certainly enough testimony to concoct a latter-day Trial of the Mountain Meadows Nine, a funnel-action account from multiple perspectives that -- after sufficient reversals and a last-minute confession by some ancient, goodhearted Paiute medicine man -- homes in on a decisive point of view. But Jensen carves a quite different relationship between the massacre and the story she wishes to tell: Mountain Meadows informs her play without dominating, obstructing or strangling it.

Two-Headed focuses on a pair of Mormon women over a span of 40 years; a decade separates each of the play’s five scenes, which sound designer Shark segues with haunting Western motifs, often rendered with lush and ironically romantic orchestrations. Lavinia and Hettie (Mary Mara and Colette Kilroy, respectively) are the play‘s only onstage characters, and we eventually learn that, when still a child, Lavinia witnessed the slaughter at Mountain Meadows -- led by her own father -- from the branch of a tree.

That sculpted, leafless tree accents the play’s Beckettian mood, and is the centerpiece of Patty Briles‘ set, grounded with patches of what appears to be caked mud and offset by a trap door to a cellar. The children refer with some fascination to a two-headed calf in that cellar -- a freak of nature that we later learn does not actually exist.

Indeed, the freaks of nature that do exist are rarely spoken of -- the human freaks, for example, who yield to the compulsion to murder in the name of God. Nobody treats the massacre as an “issue” in Jensen’s play. Rather, it‘s talked around, surfacing only in, say, the appearance of a silk camisole filched from one of the victims (evidently a prostitute chasing down new opportunities in the West). The horror of the slaughter may fade somewhat as Lavinia ages, but both the artifacts and her contempt for her father keep it alive and crackling through the story. (As when Hettie resolves to marry Lavinia’s dad: Polygamy is among the many burdens these women must endure in this play about endurance and aging.) A portrait emerges not just on the stage, but in our imaginations, as we learn of the men through hearsay, of both their faith and their carousing as they slowly fall away -- to death, jail or the asylum. In this regard, Two-Headed is a literary descendant of Beth Henley‘s Crimes of the Heart, in which a swirl of offstage male-dominated action unfolds through the stories of women.

Jensen also follows up on a discomfiting theme linking history to memory loss, earlier introduced in her Last Lists of My Mad Mother (staged last year at the Hudson Guild), a comedy about the relationship between two sisters and their fastidious mother, who is losing her marbles. In her 50s, Lavinia, a witness to history, confesses to Hettie, “I think I’m losing my beans.” “What‘s the symptoms?” Hettie asks, to which Lavinia replies, “Squares of time, missing.” As it progresses, in more and more ways Two-Headed comes to resemble Waiting for Godot, not only in the references to characters looking into a vacant sky for God, but in the precision with which Jensen layers verbal images, demonstrating herself to be a dramatic poet of the first rank. Still, she owes a debt to Veronica Brady’s keenly sensitive direction and to the acting duet, whose transformations and range of emotions convey an almost magical sweep, from childish petulance, to feisty belligerence, to stoic acceptance.

In 1857, Democratic President James Buchanan tried to quell the carpings of his Abolitionist critics by turning against the phenomenon of evangelical Mormonism in general, and polygamy in particular. That same year, he ordered federal troops to Utah; they were en route when the Fancher-Baker wagon train entered the Mountain Meadows area. Although no one actually mistook the wagon train for federal troops, local Mormon Church officials sent a messenger to Salt Lake City asking for instructions on how to handle the emigrants. (As word spread of Washington‘s anti-Mormon crusade, Brigham Young ordered that all travelers obtain written clearance for passage through Mormon territory -- a document the emigrants apparently failed to obtain.) Six days later, the messenger returned with a letter from Young, who granted permission for the train of emigrants to pass “unmolested” -- two days after the majority of them had been slaughtered.

The question of how things can spin so wildly and violently out of control in so short a time haunts Two-Headed, but is most piquantly embodied in the final scene, when Hettie, now an old woman, climbs for the first time to the branch where her friend sat 40 years earlier to gaze out on the field of blood. In this moment, Hettie understands that Lavinia was a witness, and you can see a flickering in Hettie’s eyes -- something like the savage dance of history.

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