Perhaps the least accurate way to describe Melissa Leilani Larson's new Mormon play, Little Happy Secrets, would be in terms of the primary issue with which it deals, same-sex attraction. Unfortunately, homosexuality has become its own red herring, distracting many an important conversation or the success of a work of art because it has become so politically and religiously charged. Homosexuality is an ISSUE, something requiring people to take stands and poise themselves to be offended or to offend.
Finding the right artistic or rhetorical approach is everything in these matters. How can one assure one's audience that they are not going to be subjected to propaganda or preaching, whether from the left or the right? You do what Larson and the director and cast of this play did--you focus on the core human issues. You make homosexuality not an ISSUE (with all its inevitable dangers) but a subject--a reason for authentic art, not a pretext for divisive politics.
In stark contrast to what one might expect in a Mormon play "about" same-sex attraction, there is never a word uttered regarding "the church's stand," never a discussion about doctrine or policies, no recounting of the terrible human costs exacted by .... well, you get the idea. No, this is a very modest story, not about a movement or a minority, but about a faithful, active returned missionary, a woman, who throughout the course of the play and her life never doubts her faith. Indeed, she relies on it heavily, breaking into prayer frequently, fasting, attending the temple, struggling to live her life by the light that she knows she has. She never violates the law of chastity, either. She is, from an orthodox LDS point of view, as right as rain.
And she loves her roommate more than she knows she should. Laurel Sandberg-Armstrong plays the lead character, Claire, with confidence and sensitivity. The roommate that Claire is attracted to, Brennan, is played equally well by Christie Clark. Both characters have served honorable missions for the church and resume their prior friendship as they live together while attending school. Claire freezes time and narrates to the audience the development of her attraction to Brennan. Kudos are in order for playwright Larson, as Claire's discussion is so oblique about that attraction that we wonder along with the character whether it is fair to identify it as such. Claire speaks in admiring tones about her roommate, grows jealous about Brennan's developing relationship with Carter (played by Jack Welch), but keeps her feelings mostly to herself.
There are two very compelling scenes that, were they handled differently, could have tipped the play into something uncomfortable or shallowly exploitative. But director Landon Wheeler showed her own discretion in staging benign but highly charged "intimate" moments. Brennan is watching TV with Claire and puts her head in Claire's lap. Claire feels passions rise, but these are never described or shown sexually. In a moment of being "gutsy," Claire spills it all, tells Brennan that she's in love with her. But Brennan has fallen asleep, and Claire lets the revelation lie sleeping, too.
Perhaps most astoundingly, there is a kissing scene in this play in which no kiss occurs. It is as surprising for the audience that the kiss happens as it is for Brennan. But it is also consistent with the main character's building affection. However, this is staged so brilliantly that (as the director aptly described in a post-show discussion) it proved "compelling and yet not offensive." No actual physical contact is made. The kiss is stylized, but unmistakeable. Brief, but potent enough to drive the theme and the action forward without driving the audience (a conservative Utah Valley crowd) into discomfort. This showed profound respect for the audience, the subject, and the story line simultaneously. Diretor Landon Wheeler described arriving at this treatment of a critical moment in terms of getting an answer to prayer (aided in part by a suggestion from fellow playwright, Katherine Gee). I felt it was not just an artistic success, but a moral success--not regarding sexual issues, but the ethics of Mormon aesthetics. Latter-day Saints need playwrights and directors who have the sensitivities Larson and Wheeler showed here; Mormons need fine actresses like Sandberg-Armstrong and Clark to pull it off.
And mainstream Mormon audiences need a play like Little Happy Secrets to open the sorts of conversations that good art can--something remarked on by dramaturg and playwright James Goldberg in his notes for the show. I know that the quality of our conversations following a play is a strong measure of its success. And in this regard, Little Happy Secrets is an unqualified success.
I have heard active Latter-day Saints complain about the media "normalizing" homosexuality by mainstreaming it within popular culture. Perhaps there is something to that--I'm not certain. But this play "normalized" same-sex attraction for Mormons--not in the sense of approving of behaviors seen as sinful. No. The play made the problem of same-sex attraction as normal, that is, as credible and as admittedly part of our set of struggles as, say, other-sex attraction outside of bounds. Or as normal as bulimia, or drug addiction, or pornography--and yet without the spectacle of those "issues," either.
This is not the Mormon lesbian play. I think the word "lesbian" was only used once, and in a questioning sort of way. No one should mistake the play, reducing it to a political or religious complaint. No such rhetoric ever surfaces, because this is a play more about faith and Christ-like love than anything else. This is a play that pushes some of the darkness into the light, gently and authentically, and in so doing shows a love and respect for those who struggle--both those that struggle with homosexuality, and those that struggle with those strugglers. It united people who thought they might be divided. It depicted realistic yearnings and deep feelings--both for God and for those creatures with whom we interact and who, male or female, give us a reason to make life worth it.
Little Happy Secrets should not be a best-kept secret. It is a brave and reverent Mormon play representing a great success for its creative personnel, for New Play Project, and for Mormon theater generally.
Little Happy Secrets plays through Monday, March 23rd. An audio version of the play is available as a free podcast on iTunes or through direct download here (70 mb).