2013 was a big year for women in U.S. politics. Congress convened with a record number of women holding seats (20 in the House of Representatives and 30 in the Senate), with New Hampshire being the first state to send an all-female delegation to Congress. But this was a long time coming for women, past due by several decades, and was a hard fought battle, with many casualties along the way –particularly for women in Utah. Women were given the right to vote in 1870, but in the 1880s Utah women were stripped of their right to vote by a Congress seeking to use the issue to stamp out polygamy and the Mormon faith altogether. This is the background of Plan-B Theatre Company’s production of Jenifer Nii’s SUFFRAGE, the story of two “sister wives” caught up in country that rejects and despises them for their lifestyle.
SUFFRAGE is a series of conversations and events between Frances and Ruth, two of the five “sister wives” of Benjamin. A man we learn has been imprisoned for being a polygamist, an imprisonment that has brought a hardship to their family. Frances hopes and believes that God will protect her and her family, and all things will return to normal, while Ruth has gotten swept up in the re-vitalized suffrage movement, after attending a speech by Elizabeth Stanton. Ruth’s eagerness to fight for her rights and Frances’ reluctance to call attention to their situation creates the drama of this piece.
One thing I loved about Nii’s script is that often in a polygamist story the youngest wife is a sore point for the older wives. But in this play we see polygamy as it was. Women working together to raise their children as part of their covenant to God. I’ll admit I was reluctant to care for these women, after a lifetime of negative press on polygamy, but this story simply showed the women as they are, and didn’t parade them around as freaks. This gave me access to the characters and made me care for them and their plight.
Frances (played by April Fossen) is Benjamin’s second wife, a faith-filled, long suffering woman who would be content to just continue her life that she believes God has chosen for her, raising her children and staying faithful her beliefs. Fossen’s strength is in what she gives on stage. She is both sympathetic and formidable as Frances. Her seeming incongruity between disapproving of Ruth’s choices and then defending them and Ruth to a group of men, are seamlessly delivered and completely believable.
Ruth (played by Sarah Young) is Benjamin’s 5th wife (I presumed), the youngest among them. She is said to be the children’s favorite and therefore an asset to the family, but the Suffrage movement has turned her head towards greater goals. She sees the movement as not only something that could restore her family, but also as a way she can come into her own, and rise above being just the youngest wife. Ruth’s character has the most obvious arc, but it’s not as greatly apparent in Young’s performance. I’m not sure if it was a directing choice or an acting choice, but I wanted her softer at the beginning, despite being so excited about the Suffrage movement, and to watch her mature into who she becomes at the end of the play. There were certainly places she attempted to show this, like the scene where she clears her throat and tries to speak lower while giving a speech, but those effects became just that, effects or devices, as her overall character didn’t alter as much as it could have, and stayed on a single note for most of the piece. This isn’t to say she gave a poor performance. Far from it. Rather that by showing more of the arc, she would have greatly enhanced her character and would have more closely matched Fossen’s performance.
There was also some physical affection lacking in the early parts of the play. I wanted to see Frances be more motherly toward Ruth, offering affection as a mother does to a child, then cut off this affection as Ruth changes. Instead director Cheryl Ann Cluff often had the characters separated on stage, making any motherly affection impossible, and giving a different message with their spacial relationship. Yes, this did enhance the physical affection that comes at the end of the play, but that also made the affection somewhat more shocking when it finally did happen.
One of the first things you see when you come in is the set (designed by Randy Rasmussen). It’s elegant in its simplicity and standing out is the 3-dimensional backdrop, made up of wire screening (like used on screen doors). The effect this gives is like smoke after a battle. You can imagine the two women’s lives are burning to the ground as they do battle against those that would destroy them, and this would be the smoke.
There is a historical moment that stands out in its impact on the characters: when Frances reads to us Wilford Woodruff’s denouncement of polygamy. This denouncement by the prophet of the LDS faith must have been devastating to the polygamist families living in Utah in the 1880s, and that devastation is so clearly shown on the faces of these actresses. It’s a truly beautiful moment that I feel privileged to have experienced, in a play that I felt privileged to have seen.
In a time when we still fight for equality among the sexes, as well as marriage equality (in fact, replace the word “polygamist” with “gay” in the story, and you will see there is not really a difference), despite the strides that we have made, this is an important play. Women’s rights and freedoms are still trampled upon and women make up only 20% of lawmakers in the United States. This play clearly shows the suffering that requires suffrage and it’s clear that the suffering is not yet over in this country.
April 4-14, 2013
Th, F at 8pm | Sat at 4pm and 8pm | Sun at 2pm
$20 reserved seating ($10 students)
Running time 75 minutes, no intermission | No late seating
Studio Theatre, Rose Wagner
138 W 300 S, SLC
Click here to purchase tickets or call 801.355.ARTS