Mountain Meadows Massacre Play

Bearing harsh witness

By Jayne Blanchard
June 17, 2006
Washington Times

    The face we present to the world, as well as the lies we tell ourselves and those closest to us, are the focus of Julie Jensen's stark, involving play "Two-Headed," a production at the Washington Shakespeare Company under the direction of Gregg Henry that features some of the most compelling acting you are likely to see south of Studio Theatre.

    Lee Mikeska Gardner and Melissa Flaim portray two Mormon frontierswomen grappling for 40 years with the fallout from Utah's Mountain Meadows Massacre. The play is a resonant testament to the power of secrets, how they warp as much as shape us.

    Miss Jensen was raised in Utah and is a descendant of Col. William H. Dame of the Mormon Militia, which helped plan the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 -- in which 120 California-bound emigrants from the Midwest and Southwest were murdered. (Seventeen children were spared and absorbed into the Mormon community.) The bodies were buried hastily in shallow graves, the corpses promptly dug up by wolves.

    Then-Gov. Brigham Young first blamed the Paiute Indians for the massacre, but in later murder trials, it became evident that Mormon settlers, under the direction of John D. Lee, were actively involved with the Paiutes in the planning and execution of the attack. Speculation abounds to this day, but many theories focus on a combination of retribution and religious fervor that spurred the Mormons to such an act of butchery.

    "Two-Headed" does not treat the Mountain Meadows Massacre as a courtroom drama or whodunit -- the savagery is spoken of indirectly, danced around.

    The bare, unblinking poetry of the dialogue and staging puts you in mind of a desert version of "Waiting for Godot," and, indeed, in Michael Kachman's set, a burned-out tree dominates the stage.

    The massacre is seen through the eyes of Hettie (Miss Gardner) and Lavinia (Miss Flaim), who are 10 years old when the event occurs and are as curious and bug-eyed as children at a carnival sideshow. They exult in the horrors of what the emigrants left behind -- sexy camisoles of pure silk and lockets, and there even is talk of a two-headed calf.

    This glee dissipates as the friends endure the strain of keeping such a dark, nasty secret, as well as the death of their friend Jane. The short, sharp scenes detail each decade in the women's lives as they move onto marriages, children, disappointment and hardship.

    Polygamy is one of the many burdens Hettie and Lavinia must endure -- Hettie marries Lavinia's father, and Lavinia gets hitched to Jane's widower, Ezra, before the corpse is barely cold. The indignities don't end there -- the women, in middle age, must remain steadfast as Ezra takes Hettie's teenage daughter for a bride. Life for these women, it seems, was an endless rut of obedience and childbirth.

    Through it all, Hettie is sustained by a bovine sense of acceptance and faith, looking for the good things in life even when it seems ridiculous. Miss Gardner, whose acting and directing usually are shorthand for "strength," displays aching vulnerability as the hesitant, slightly foolish Hettie. Conversely, Miss Flaim is as hard-bitten as Miss Gardner is soft.

    Fueled by rage over her father, who played a major role in the massacre, as well as a lifetime of unkindness, Miss Flaim's Lavinia is a stunning testament to how hatred can keep you alive while eating you alive.

    As with the massacre, the men in "Two-Headed" are never seen; their lives unfold in the stories told by women. Hettie and Lavinia compose vivid portraits of men, relishing their usually ignoble ends in jail or asylums or through violent death. The women endure, aging and bearing harsh witness to the acts committed in the name of God.

History may be rewritten through the ages, but as Miss Jensen suggests, fading memory does not take away the pain.
    WHAT: "Two-Headed," by Julie Jensen
    WHERE: Washington Shakespeare Company, Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Crystal City
    WHEN: 8 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays until July 5; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays July 6 through 9.
    TICKETS: $22 to $30
    PHONE: 800/494-8497