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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
This intimate perspective forces the audience to imagine what it was like to be a Mormon woman in the nineteenth century and thus understand how we all circumvent speaking freely about a lot of things. It transforms docudrama into the saga of a friendship pieced together like one of the women's painstakingly sewn quilts — often threatening to fray, but invariably patched together again.
When we first meet Lavinia (Deirdre O'Connell) and Hettie (Lizbeth Mackay) in 1857 they are ten years old. At the end of the intermissionless hour and fifteen minutes they are fifty. It's always risky thing to ask adults to portray children. O'Connell, who plays Lavinia, benefits from previous practice at switching between child and adult characters ( in last season's In the Blood ). Mackay has a harder time with the ten-year-old persona of Hettie. Still, both actresses adeptly work their way through this scene to establish the distinct personalities that pave the way for their life-long disagreements — and friendship. Lavinia is clearly the smart, feisty and volatile one over whom the massacre will hang most heavily and for whom polygamy is least palatable. Hettie is just as clearly the toe-the-mark unquestioning traditionalist. Ms. O'Connell has the more colorful role so it may be unfair to fault Ms. Mackay for making Hettie too understated and flat compared to the more dimensional character portrayed by Ms. O'Connell.
Ms. Jensen's straightforward writing makes Two-Headed a two-tiered play that embraces humor as well as sadness. Through Lavinia and Hettie we get to know all the key people who shape their lives and relationship: Jane, the unseen third friend and much more a soul mate to Lavinia than Hettie. . . Ezra, Jane's husband and, after her death, when the women are twenty, Lavinia's husband. . . Lavinia's father, the zealot whose part in the massacre torments Lavinia, as does his taking Hettie as his second wife, leaving Lavinia feeling abandoned and enraged for her mother . . . Tess, Hettie and Ezra's daughter who becomes Ezra's second wife, has Lavinia, once more in a rage. . .and Lavinia's daughter Jane, who, unlike her mother and the woman for whom she was named, gets away from the hard scrabble farm life existence for a career as a midwife (as Lavinia and Jane once dreamed of careers as teachers). The fact that none of these people actually appear on stage underscores the fact that, while the massacre and polygamy are playwright Jensen's dramatic building blocks, what ultimately moves us is the relationship of these two sometimes enemies but always friends.
We watch the pattern of this very human patchwork quilt emerge without any violence or, for that matter, very much action. The women talk and argue, they quilt, and at the end they climb up into the huge tree where all the hints about the Lavinia's more than hearsay knowledge of the Massacre are finally explained. The obvious artificiality of that tree, a giant cardboard construction, brings us to the weaknesses in the production.
The shakiness of this tree tends to give the impression of "two-headedness" about the play's format — one part because that's the way it demanded to be done, one part dictated by economics. The play itself also occasionally tends to overstretch the metaphor of the title meaning. The symbolism of the two headed cow to clarify Lavinia's inability to talk about the massacre and the reaching out by one friend for the missing hand (accepting the bad as well as the good?) of the other make for nice, well-defined symbolic touches, but at times this metaphor's extension is somewhat torturous.
Under Joan Vail Thorne's tightly focused direction Lavinia's and Hettie's difficult lives are revealed with sensitivity and dramatic, but never melodramatic, intensity. The story is wisely told without a break and ends exactly when it should.