Mormon love stories often bring to mind the images of blushing Molly Mormons and strapping Peter Priesthoods meeting and falling for each other in innocuous hometowns (most likely Provo, Utah). Any light scratching at the shiny veneer, however, reveals more complicated plots and twists in the straightforward narrative. Melissa Leilani Larson’s Third Wheel scratches away while giving voice to some of the prevalent, yet marginalized groups rampant across LDS congregations: youth who experience same-sex attraction, couples who remain childless against their wishes.
As a collection of two plays, Third Wheel might seem inaccessible to non-theatre practitioners. Even those who enjoy attending plays may feel strange reading scripts without a visual aid. I beg you to reconsider. Larson’s work does not give easy answers, nor does it allow the reader/audience to sit back and passively absorb the stories as they unfold. She requires thought and prods at complex problems rooted in the core of Mormon culture. Eric Samuelsen’s foreword to the collection offers a concise argument for what makes Larson’s writing so compelling:
Above all, the plays lead to conversation. After seeing them, we audience members seem compelled to talk about them. The test of a great play isn’t whether audiences laugh, or cry. It’s the degree to which the play gets under your skin. After seeing either play in a good production, you can’t let it go. You talk in the car on the way home. You wake in the middle of the night, thinking about it.
Little Happy Secrets, the first play in Third Wheel, tells the story of a faithful RM who finds herself falling for her best friend. Although the action takes place 10 years ago, the conflict is still freshly relevant today. Claire, the protagonist, is eloquent yet accessible in her descriptions of the events that unfold in this memory play. Larson strikes the perfect balance between tragedy and comedy as Claire explores her developing feelings in monologues—one-sided scenes, really—delivered directly to the audience:
Is it even a sin? To wonder, to care? To want? That’s where the sin comes in, doesn’t it. The wanting. The fact that I want someone I’m not meant to have . . . Well, I’m not the one that put her there for the wanting, you know what I’m saying?
She flexes her wit without resorting to using it as a crutch and relates events without painting herself as the victim. Hungry for more? We featured a scene between Claire and her sister in our April 2017 journal. I hesitate to give much more away for fear of spoiling the end, but rest assured there is no tidy resolution for Claire or the rest of the cast. The characters are too rich, too relatable for pat answers.
Pilot Program, alternately, takes place in the near future (five or so years out). The plot revolves around a devout, childless Mormon couple who are asked to participate in a “pilot program” to restore polygamy as an acceptable church practice. Surprising themselves as much as anyone else, Abigail and Jake agree to the program and begin the process of selecting a second wife. The introduction of the potential second wife can be found in our March 2017 journal (read it!).
In a somewhat similar fashion to Little Happy Secrets, Abigail’s inner thoughts are revealed through monologues/blog posts. Larson expertly speaks the native language of Mormon culture in these monologues, giving a genuine insider’s perspective to religious quagmires:
It doesn’t make sense. I know it doesn’t. Forty-five minutes later, I’m tied in knots. I’m angry and confused and all over the place. But the moment that he asked, in that second, that breath hanging in the air between him and me—There was a blossom of warmth. A burst of—I don’t know. Faith? Maybe it was the Spirit, maybe it was my imagination. But I felt it. That it—this—was the right thing. It was completely terrifying. And now I want to deny that it happened, but I can’t. I can’t.
While both plays pull at preconceived notions of what faithful Mormonism looks like, I admit that Little Happy Secrets is my favorite of the two. Its heart rings unfailingly genuine and true. Both plays feature a tight cast of flawed, yet lovable characters. Pilot Program, however, left me with an off-putting aftertaste around some of the characters’ actions. The murkiness breeds conversation, though, which further supports the hallmark of Larson’s work: plays that keep you thinking.
I was fortunate enough to see both plays in production some years ago. The 2015 production of Pilot Program kept me up at night as I wondered what I would do in that circumstance, and whether such an event could possibly occur. The 2013 production of Little Happy Secrets broke and restrung my heart over the course of 90-ish minutes. I urged my friends to go and talk to me about it afterwards. In full disclosure, I was a part of the 2009 premiere cast originating the role of Brennan (Claire’s roommate). No play has had more impact on me as an actor. Few playwrights have written such rich, humorous, yet relatable contemporary female roles.
In short, if you’re interested in exploring complex questions centered on religious practice, read Third Wheel. If you’re interested in multifaceted female protagonists with meaty issues, give this book a try. If you’re still on the fence (and in the Utah Valley area), check out a free reading of Pilot Program at UVU on Saturday, September 9.
One parting thought from Abigail:
We came to this earth to be imperfect. To be mortal and malleable. Human. That was the point So why do we torment ourselves with perfect expectations none of us can attain? Happiness isn’t perfection; it’s realizing that you aren’t perfect and accepting that you may never be. And that is just fine.
You can order Third Wheel through BCC Press.