Earlier this year, Mahonri Stewart’s play A Roof Overhead received mixed reviews (see here and here) shortly after its April debut at Springville, Utah’s Little Brown Theater. While several people, including me, wrote favorably about the play, others found less to like about it. James Goldberg, for example, sharply criticized the play in a post for Dawning of a Brighter Day, citing its unsympathetic depiction of atheism and the way a certain scene “stretche[d] credulity past the breaking point.” According to James, Mahonri did “a poor job sketching the world” in the play and so “lost his informed audience in the process.”
Shortly after James’ post, Mahonri contacted me about helping him revise the play. After re-reading the script, I sent Mahonri some suggestions, which he reviewed and, in some instances, incorporated into his new draft. In the end, I think Mahonri turned out a better play than the original. The new version was performed by Arizona State University’s Binary Theatre Company in October. After the final performance, Mahonri sent me a link to a YouTube video of the new production. Here are my thoughts on it.
First, I think A Roof Overhead is a solid first attempt at contemporary Mormon drama. Mahonri’s other work is largely based in the nineteenth century or in some sort of mythical alternate reality, so his incursion into the sordid milieu of modernity is new ground for him. Overall, I think the play captures accurately the situation of some Mormons and some atheists. As I have argued since April, A Roof Overhead works best when you think of its characters as representative types rather than flesh-and-blood individuals. What they stand for is what matters. Who they are is what makes the cultural exchanges at the heart of the play work.
Sadly, my enthusiasm for the play was not what it was when I first saw it in the Little Brown Theater in Springville, Utah. The script, to be sure, played out much more plausibly than the original, and the new set impressed me as an accurately captured interior of a Mormon home. I also liked what Mahonri tried to do with a new scene involving peanut butter and Nutella, which seemed designed to make Sam, the atheist character, less of an antagonist and more sympathetic on the whole. As it played out on stage, though, this scene seemed a little forced—largely, I believe, because it demanded more physicality than the actors were willing to bring.
Admittedly, I think my lack of enthusiasm had much to do with how I watched this second production. (YouTube is great, but it’s not the same as the intimacy of a small theater.) I also found that I missed the original cast, which seemed to have more love for each other and for the material than the new cast. For instance, Randall King, the actor who played the father in the original production, moved about the stage with a patriarchal weariness that spoke to my experiences with Mormon men. The new father, on the other hand, was played by a much younger actor who seemed altogether too angry and unbending for my tastes. He lacked the heartbrokenness and despair of King’s interpretation.
The same could be said about the other actors. Rebecca Minson, the actress who played Sam in the original production perfectly captured the character’s subtle mix of fragility and fire. The new Sam, however, seemed altogether too belligerent to be sympathetic—although her belligerence, I’ll grant, seemed an appropriate enough response to the anger being lobbed at her from Mr. Fielding and Joel, the Fielding’s oldest son. In the original production, I felt one of the weakest elements was the performance of the actor who played the history-loving Joel, who seemed not quite up to the challenge the character poses. Even so, I found myself missing the goofiness and pain the original actor brought to the role. The new production’s Joel played the character with more intensity and less humor—and I don’t think it worked as well. In fact, part of what I think the original cast brought to the play that the new cast did not was the sense that the characters—including Sam—were unfamiliar and uncomfortable with real confrontation. It made their inexperience with the other seem all the more pronounced.
So, perhaps, my second experience with A Roof Overhead was unfairly colored by my experience with the original production. Still, I think the lack of love these characters conveyed for each other and for the situation they found themselves in is not something I would have missed had this second production been my first exposure to the play. The verbal sparring between the Fieldings and Sam that made the original production of A Roof Overhead so powerful for me came off too cutting and spite-ridden with the new cast. It seems as if they traded in the complexity of a full range of troubling emotion for the clobbering pathos of the shouting match.
My final verdict on A Roof Overhead is that it is a good play with an important message. The original cast, I think, benefited from an excellent cast and thoughtful interpretation of the script; the Arizona cast benefited from a better script, but stumbled on the level of interpretation. Overall, I think the play offers a good snapshot of the Mormon Moment, but I imagine it will not be the play Mahonri is best remembered for, since it is more timely than timeless.