Third Wheel: Reviewed

Mel Leilani Larson’s Third Wheel: Peculiar Stories of Mormon Women in Love is deeply, deeply human. At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, it includes two plays Little Happy Secrets and Pilot Program. Both center on Mormon women in love (which should not come as a surprise to anyone that read the book’s subtitle). Both plays also include a complication that could be said to turn them a bit “peculiar”—LHS is about Claire, a recently returned missionary that falls in love with her best friend and roommate, Brennan, who is dating a dude Claire doesn’t care for. PP focuses on Abigail, who is invited with her husband to be a part of a polygamy restoration pilot program.

I read LHS on the Chunnel from London to Paris, fighting throughout the journey to stifle raucous laughter and hold back the tears that were streaming down my face. I’d read an excerpt from this play a few years ago (and re-read it recently) and the play in its entirety is even more powerful. There’s a humanity to Mel’s characters that makes them feel like friends I have (or wish to have). I want to find Claire on twitter because she’d probably be hilarious with her sass and love of literature.

Mel does a masterful job of creating real, embodied, fleshed-out characters. The action is orchestrated in a way that you feel for all the characters and the choices that they make and the ending is ambiguous enough that there’s plenty of room for further speculation and interpretation. It’s not quite happy and not quite tragic, but some mixture of the two. These are the sorts of stories that we need more of. Stories that confront some of our biggest challenges and concerns and struggles as a faith community. These imagined, narrative spaces seem to give broader allowance for the events to unfold and for the audience to let the characters speak for themselves. We’re removed just enough to perhaps not only willfully suspend our disbelief, but also our judgment of the morality of their choices, as we may be want to do if these were real people in our wards.

Similar to what I did with Mother’s Milk here, I’d like to actually engage substantively with the text, which will inevitably include spoilers. If you haven’t read or seen the plays and are spoiler-averse, STOP reading right now, find a copy and read them immediately.

Now that those concerned about spoilers have fled our midst, let’s dive in.

LITTLE HAPPY SECRETS

There are big questions raised by LHS. What should Claire’s life look like as a lesbian and a Mormon? Should she live with her best friend even as she discovers that she has romantic feelings for her? What should she do with those feelings? Pretend they don’t exist? Push them away? Hide them? All things that Claire does and/or is told to do by other characters throughout the play. Mel doesn’t provide an easy way out. She simply lets Claire live in this difficult space. Claire *believes*. She has felt things spiritually that typically endorse a certain set of behaviors (for her, temple marriage to a man, having children, etc.), but parts of that picture no longer match other strong and valid, and just as real feelings that she has.

The ending of the play is where things get really complicated. Is this a happy ending? Is Claire better off cutting ties with Brennan or…or…or? There’s a wealth of possibilities. The ambiguity here is rich. And I think ripe for further discussion. It seems that Claire has come to a place of fuller acceptance by the end of the play, even if that came at the cost of a friendship and with immense amounts of anxiety and mental, emotional, spiritual pain. The ending is perfect because it stops before endorsing any one path for Claire to take, moving forward. We don’t know if Claire remains active in the Church, chooses celibacy, leaves but maintains belief, loses all faith, marries happily, etc. This choice I think forces the audience to sit with Claire and debate what should happen and what she should do, now, faced with this complicated reality given her faith and sexual orientation. Powerful.

PILOT PROGRAM

*Long, slow exhale*. Man, this play messes with you. A powerful, imaginative exercise that again is deeply human and forces you to sit with remarkably difficult and uncomfortable ideas. The smartest and most interesting move that Mel makes with PP, is to have both Abigail and Heather receive some sort of spiritual witness that they are meant to take part in this restoration of polygamy. That grounds the story in their experience and keeps the momentum of the play on their shoulders. It also strips the conversation of some of the patriarchal elements that would have been present had Jacob received the witness. Some could critique this as unlikely. That these liberal, working, strong, independent women would never receive such revelation, but I’m less sure. I’ve definitely felt things that I’d describe as revelations or promptings that were not what I wanted and seemed to call into question assumptions and things that I’ve made, and the way the characters respond felt so real and true. Probably the best depiction of receiving a spiritual prompting I’ve ever encountered. Doing this also sidesteps to a certain extent the question of whether polygamy is or is not inspired. The play is concerned with the cost of polygamy, assuming that it is inspired (which incidentally seems to question the inspiration of polygamy more broadly by showing the pain and heartache that it causes this family that has agreed to practice it).

Again, the ending is key here. Where LHS stops early, leaving the audience to imagine what Claire’s future is like, PP continues pushing forward, to a point where the ripple effect of polygamy for Abigail and Jacob is more fully developed. The final scene is heartbreaking. Abigail has become increasingly despondent and is cut off from Jacob and Heather. The beautiful relationship that Abigail and Jacob had no longer exists and cannot be recovered. Not in the same way that it once was. I think there’s room to read a tinge of optimism in the ending, that despite what has happened and the changes that have taken place, perhaps they can recover some of the joy and laughter and happiness that they used to have in this new, bizarre, trying relationship that they are in. It could also signal that they can never heal from this and that they will forever be broken.

I attended a reading of the script at UVU last night (9 September 2017) and was struck by this line from Abigail:

“But that’s the reason. That’s what faith is. Dealing with the fact that you never know enough.”

Beautiful. That may become my new go to definition for faith. This idea is explored throughout the play in powerful ways. This idea of faith resonates with my experience (and scriptures like Paul’s comments on seeing through a “glass darkly”). Love it. ‘Faith: dealing with the fact that you never know enough.’

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