This is a guest post from Leigh Ann Copas
On Friday, March 23rd, I had the pleasure of attending Parable Productions’ newest endeavor It Is Well with My Soul: The Joni Eareckson Tada Story. Adapted, written, and directed by Annie Fields, It Is Well is based on the autobiography Joni, and focuses on the difficult journey that one woman faces after a tragic accident leaves her a quadriplegic. Her inspirational story begins in 1967 with a diving accident and details a 4-year highlight of her diagnosis, the beginning of her physical recovery, and the origins of her spiritual recovery.
Annie Fields accurately titles her adaptation with the beginning phrase “It Is Well with My Soul,” a reference to the hymn penned by Horatio Spafford and composed by Philip Bliss. Spafford wrote the lyrics after a series of tragic accidents occurred in his family—the loss of six children, four of which died at the same time, and financial ruin during the great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic to Europe to join his grieving wife, childless and alone, Spafford was inspired to pen the lyrics as he passed by the area where his four daughters had died during the sinking of the SS Ville du Havre. In the hymn, he describes that in peace and in conflict, in heart-ache and in joy, that “No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, / Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul,” and the famous refrain, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.” Joni’s experience is much like Spafford’s, as both are met with unfathomable situations that escalate into other obstacles and trying experiences, be they physical, mental, or metaphysical. Yet, the overarching theme is clear: “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, / It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
The play opens with a welcome video from Joni herself, thanking the audience for attending, and perfectly setting the tone of the play—that in all things there is always Christ, and through Christ, there is always hope. The audience then meets Joni (Michele Rideout) on stage, in her electronic wheel chair, eager to narrate the humble beginning of her ministry. Joni, rarely moving from down-stage, left, emphatically outlines the story, much like a true autobiography. The central scene opens on a sunny afternoon at Chesapeake Bay, where Young Joni (Lindsay Ann Walters) is sunbathing with her sister Kathy (Rhonda Mangan), boyfriend Dick (Joe Bateman), and several friends. At one point, Young Joni mistakenly dives into a shallow portion of the Bay, performed off stage, and immediately, chaos ensues. Young Joni is rushed to the emergency room, but the diagnosis is grim—she’s fractured an area between the fourth and fifth cervical, leaving her paralyzed from the shoulders down.
The majority of Act 1 finds Young Joni in a Stryker frame and left to the mercy of several doctors and nurses who are constantly rotating and attending to the frame. These scenes are enrapturing and moving, as the audience sympathizes with Young Joni’s conditions, as both Young Joni and Joni narrate the scenes, and as the other ensemble members appropriately respond to the situation. Joni describes the depression that sunk in as she realized her life would be forever changed, and Young Joni constantly calls for comfort from the doctors, nurses, and friends, as she tries to piece together the state of her condition and contemplates the possibility of any future with Dick, Kathy, and her family.
Act 2 opens in the Greenoaks Rehabilitation Center, where conditions are much different from the hospital. The attendants here are less helpful and more bullies than allies. However, Young Joni receives encouragement from friends and roommates that prepares her for the Rancho Los Amigos, where, Young Joni breaks free from the Stryker frame to an automatic wheel chair and regains some independence and mobility, allowing her to finally return home.
Throughout the Acts, the scenery and sound effects greatly enhance the experience for the audience. While Calvary Chapel provides a nice, wide stage, there is little room for scenery and backdrops. To off-set this feature, the production crew (Annie Fields, JuLee King, John Cash, Martel Fisher, Stanley Hopkins, Christine Henson, Elizabeth Brown, Cinde Scharf, Rick Shaffer, and David Baker) relied on some on-stage props and scenery, a slide-projector for background images, and great lighting and sound effects. During the ambulance and emergency room scenes, the effects provide a nail-biting and nervous chill to the air. The sounds of the medical equipment, beating-heart, and green/gray lighting reflect the anxious movements that Young Joni can no longer produce herself, and heightens the eeriness of the hospital. The woodland backdrop of Young Joni’s front yard created an airy freedom from the sterile and dim hospital and rehabilitation centers and provided the perfect backdrop for her chance encounter with a butterfly—a “symbol of God’s love and reassurance.”
The final scenery accolade goes to Joni herself, as several of her paintings, drawn by mouth, appear throughout the play. The first is a striking self-portrait from her Stryker bed days, followed by a powerful portrait of her beloved steed Tumbleweed, and several others. The details and imagery are rich within, and it is difficult for the audience to comprehend how someone so physically limited could imagine let alone paint such beautiful and moving works.
Final kudos must be paid in large part to the fantastic duo that portrayed Young Joni and Joni, Lindsay Ann Walters and Michele Rideout respectively. While Young Joni was primarily center stage and Joni down-stage, left, the audience equally divides their attention between both characters. When Young Joni has the primary action, Joni patiently awaits her turn to narrate, usually under a red light or blackout. There are times when one character begins a line or scene and the other seamlessly takes over. There is little doubt that the audience is listening to the inner monologue of one character. I was also impressed with the physical demand of both roles—neither actress could move her body below the shoulders, and both had the challenge of operating and navigating an electronic wheelchair. As well, Young Joni (Walters) met the challenge of performing in the Stryker bed, further limiting her actions to a stagnant position on stage. Although there was little physical movement, the voice, diction, and facial expressions of the two made great strides on stage. At one point, Young Joni, flipped upside down in the Stryker, begins to sing to pass the time and calm her loneliness. Walters’ voice is strong, unwavering, and perfectly in pitch. Both characters embody the one item that Joni didn’t lose that fateful day at Chesapeake Bay—her voice.
It Is Well with My Soul: The Joni Eareckson Tada Story is a production for the family. The touching story has been captivating audiences since the early ‘70s, and it’s fantastic to see the birth of a stage production.
Parable Productions’ It Is Well with My Soul: The Joni Eareckson Tada Story plays March 23, 24, 25, 26, 30, 31, and April 1 & 2 at 7:00 p.m. at Calvary Chapel Salt Lake, located at 460 W Century Dr. (4350 S).