Note: D.M.Jackson has acted at WSC in the past, but has never worked directly with or for any of the artists involved with this production.
This gem of a two-character play, Two-Headed by Julie Jensen, is an ideal performance piece for Lee Mikeska Gardner and Melissa Flaim. Wrapped in tight layers like an onion, the story slowly relinquishes its secrets in precious, savory moments. Set in 1857 Utah, the life experiences of two dear friends cover forty years as they lurch towards discovery, awareness, and self-acceptance in 90 compact minutes.
The strange name, two headed, works as an allegory on several levels-Flaim who plays Lavinia with playful command, entices Lee Mikeska Gardner, the more shy, reticent and subservient Hettie, with the prospects of seeing a two-headed calf hidden in the cellar. The image can also generally apply to the duality of life, being “two-headed” about things spoken and unspoken. For example, there is a cruel dual reality about Lavinia’s father as a pious, religious leader and military officer, who may have had an active role in the slaughter of over 127 migrants, including women and children, on the journey West, a true historical event.
The characters age in each scene– their first scene as children is priceless— but more significant is their growing enlightenment about what happened in Mountain Meadows on that day. Subtle messages abound in this beautifully crafted play. One scene about the rancid deterioration of the unburied could refer to families slaughtered on the trail as well as the 3-day old corpse of a beloved friend needing her husband’s blessing for burial. As they age, the characters come to grips with increasingly devastating bits of information, even being informed by the decisions of their own children, and ultimately they acknowledge painful aspects about their loved ones, each other, and eventually about themselves.
Their devotion and blind trust in men as fathers, early love interests, godly providers, or feeble, infirm husbands shape the course of their lives, and although never seen on stage, the men occupy a steady presence. Questions about what really happened at Mountain Meadows hover throughout the play along with whispers about the involvement of these God-fearing saints in the butchery. Wasn’t the martyrdom of Joseph Smith sufficient to justify slaughtering those who probably rejoiced at his death, eye for an eye? These questions, piercingly timely today, percolate through the scenes and bubble up just enough to hit the surface before sinking back down into the depths of the unspoken. Such brilliant writing is a joy to witness.
The bond between the women is palpable and strong enough to withstand the deepest hurt, jealously, and even pain of betrayal. The women sustain, nurture, and hold each other up through years of hardship. Lavinia and Hettie are survivors of an emotional slaughter in a society cloaked in secrecy and fear of retribution. We feel their joy as they celebrate the early prosecution of polygamy and what they hope will be freer lives for their own daughters. Only towards the end of her life is Lavinia able to finally admit, probably even for the first time to herself, that she witnessed the massacre firsthand as a little girl those many years ago.
Anyone familiar with the work of these excellent actresses might wonder if the piece was cast against type as an experiment-Flaim is renown for her luminescent, playful innocence and Gardner’s commanding presence is legendary. In their capable hands, the casting twist adds yet another dimensional layer of interest as the women explore their own repertories to deliver taut, expressive performances. Also, as reflected in director Gregg Henry’s most recent work– Scaramouche, Experiment with an Air Pump, You are Here-his brilliant sense of character development hits every mark. He works his magic with two of the finest actresses in the region and a captivating script- it’s a powerful ensemble not to be missed.
Two-Headed is the perfect repertory piece for the Children’s Hour. Spatially, both directors bid a fond farewell to the Clark Street Playhouse taking full advantage of the set design by Michael Kachman. In both pieces, actresses fearlessly climb an ordinary ladder (even in long frontier skirts!) to perch on “tree limbs” that reach high into the rafters of the irreplaceable home of the Washington Shakespeare Company. WSC has provided a panoramic view to explore strong women characters struggling with hurtful realities, their relationships, and the devastating impact of secrets and lies.