Review: God Is Love, and Sometimes Love Hurts

Melissa Leilani Larson. Third Wheel: Peculiar Stories of Mormon Women in Love. By Common Consent Press. 2017.

Mel Leilani Larson’s upcoming collection of Mormon plays, Third Wheel, wears its thematic heart on its sleeve; it’s right there in the title. The two plays inside the collection, Little Happy Secrets and Pilot Program, both feature as its main protagonist women who are third wheels in relationships. But these two works, which premiered in 2009 and 2015 respectively, are more than stories about romantic yearning and heartbreak. They are stories about faith, certainly, and Third Wheel is peppered with Mormon references both spiritual and cultural helping to provide a rich context and milieu to explore. But they are also stories about the ending of worlds, of unmitigated sorrow, of desperation and depression, of hopelessness and loneliness. They are tales of Mormons who try to find some semblance of comfort in their loss. They pray, they plead, they rage, and they try — against all odds — to keep the pain bottled up inside and secreted away like every good Mormon does until they reach their breaking points. They are plays with opening scenes where the protagonist finds herself tumbling into a proverbial bottomless pit, flailing about while falling endlessly and grasping, to no avail, for something to hold on to, yet fearing the impact if the bottom happens to actually exist.

More specifically, Little Happy Secrets is about Claire, a young BYU co-ed, returned missionary, English major, Jane Austen fanatic, and star-crossed lover who finds herself in love with her roommate (who is also a woman). Pilot Program, in contrast to Little Happy Secrets’ everyday heartbreak, explores a fantastical yet all too entirely believable near-future where polygamy is reinstated in the Church and Abigail and her husband Jacob are “called” to participate. Both of these subjects are fraught with pitfalls in current Latter-day Saint discourse, yet Larson charts a deft course between Mormon culture’s Scylla and Charybdis. Take Claire’s observation on Mormon culture and secrets as an example:

What secrets there are, we keep them from each other. How we’re doing, what we’re doing. It’s like if something happens, you don’t want the ward to find out. But then you have friends and neighbors and roommates, and everyone whispers to everyone else, and everyone guesses. That’s the worst, when everyone guesses, because then everything gets blown out of proportion, and sometimes you have to spill the beans just to keep people from talking. But no one stops talking.

Claire acknowledges that it’s less gossip and more “everyone worries about everyone else,” but she wishes that “people would keep their worrying to themselves.” It’s a universal Mormon condition, but without the scolding or pleading to do better. Rather, Larson’s characters hold up a magnifying glass to our culture and narrates their place within it. We are, then, left not to speculate amongst ourselves whether what these characters did was right or wrong in the moral, spiritual sense as much as to realize they never had a chance to begin with. Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juilet, we’re told up-front how this will all end. This stubborn refusal from the world — our world — in Larson’s plays to change enough to accommodate these women frees us from judging what they could have done differently to avoid their inevitable destinies; we are, instead, left to mourn with those that mourn and feel our hearts enlarge because of it.

Larson’s Mormonism is never the focal point of her work. And yet, none of these plays would function without her Mormonism behind it. Mormonism is never the protagonist nor antagonist; rather, it’s the backdrop. It’s the lines between the lines that point towards unspoken past traumas and heartaches as well as comforts and moments of happiness. It’s a refreshing take on Mormon storytelling; there are no didactic sermons or angry polemics, no easy Seminary answers yet challenging questions that would stump even the most learned seminarians. But it’s also not a Mormonism reduced to simple pop culture references or winking jokes about Mormon banalities; it is a lived, messy, painful praxis. Larson’s Mormonism never accuses nor excuses, but it always informs. It’s the core engine that drives her characters who grapple with situations that wouldn’t make sense otherwise outside its Mormon context. Theology crashes into individual people, and Larson takes that chaos and shapes it into something so masterful it hurts and aches in your heart.

Little Happy Secrets, in the hands of a lesser playwright, would have fallen apart long before the concluding scene. Told through a series of memories, Claire walks us through her own history like a personal Virgil, sometimes giving us a monologue about her sorrow and other times simply quipping. This mixture of short essays interspersed with snappy dialogue make Larson’s plays surprisingly good reading unlike other scripts which are much more enjoyable as a live performance rather than evening reading material. This isn’t to say, however, that the play’s essay-like monologues do all of the heavy lifting; The characters’ dialogues speak volumes where an essay couldn’t. Claire’s arrogance, desperation, and jealousy are brought to life by words exchanged between her object of affection, Brennan, Brennan’s boyfriend, and Claire’s sister, as well as the white space — the silence — between them. The play is laced with an emotional tension that quickly wraps itself around the audience and begins cinching itself tight to the point of pain. Claire is a cord of nerves that begin to fray and unravel at an accelerating velocity. But she never wallows in sniveling pathos nor does she morph into a walking assortment of stiff tropes about faith and righteousness — all object lesson but no soul. Claire is simply Claire who we, as Mormons, know will meet only heartbreak yet find ourselves hoping against hope that she will find some kind of solace to her anguish.

The last five pages of Little Happy Secrets had me holding my breath, and for the first time, I found myself praying, earnestly praying, for a fictional character who was all too real to me. I found myself praying for the Claires I knew in my life, my heartbeat roaring in my ears as she raced towards the conclusion. But at the last minute, the rope is cut; the oxygen rushes back into the room, and we are allowed to take a breath and perhaps even sigh. The smallest of triumphs — if one can even call it that — are eked out. We are left not with a tidy conclusion or a happy ending or a life lesson about faith and perseverance worthy of the Ensign, but just a curled fist around some secrets and an uncertain future that still stretches out into the horizon.

Pilot Program, in contrast to Little Happy Secrets, follows the heartbreak of an older woman not in the throes of young love but of the comfortable stability of marriage. Abigail and Jacob are happy and more than content. Whereas Claire is full of an energetic angst that never takes the time to slow down or even so much as take a deep breath until the very end, Abigail’s angst is a slower one, brought about by decades — not months — of heartaches and the scar tissue that builds up with them. Abigail is infertile, and her guilt at her infertility (along with an unexplainable feeling of warmth she wishes she never felt) propels her to do the unthinkable. She participates in a pilot program of the Church bringing back polygamy. She shares — not gives, she reminds us — her husband with a younger, single friend and a former prodigy student.

Like Little Happy Secrets, Pilot Program follows the same format of monologues mingled in with more traditional theater scenes (one of those scenes being the most awkward marriage proposal I have ever read). But unlike Claire, who tells us in retrospect, giving us hints and foreshadowing at the upcoming heartbreak, Abigail has no such luxury. Her monologues are snapshots of her mind, her growing loneliness and insecurity that gnaws at the edges. Like Little Happy Secrets, Pilot Program has no real happy ending or conclusion at all. Instead, we find an odd marriage that has crossed an event horizon that they can never uncross, whether they want to or not. Like Claire, all Abigail can do is look out into the uncertain future.

If Little Happy Secrets is a hurtling, out-of-control train — barreling down the tracks, careening dangerously, ready to self-destruct at any minute — then Pilot Program is the slow burn of the fuse on a bomb that we, the audience, watch with ever-mounting anxiety as it sparks away, curling the blackened wick at an agonizingly plodding pace yet never quite reaching the payload before the curtain falls. The two experiences end up feeling different in the starkest of ways, and yet the ending is always the same — I am left on the ground, knocked off balance, gasping for breath and wondering, “What just happened?”

And my heart aches for these characters. I find myself wanting to do all the Mormon things for them — bake them a casserole, invite them over for board games, mow their lawn, sit with them in church on Sunday — just something to show that I care and I know and I hurt, too, and we all hurt in our own ways and none of this is true or real and yet impossibly all of it is true and real. I find myself yearning to be Mormon with them, because in these pages, in these lines, I find myself in them, a third wheel between my faith and these stories wondering if I can fit in with everything else, if I can ever really fit in at all. I stare into Mormonism’s future, and — I absolutely confess — I am more than a little scared. But if we have people in our faith and communities like Larson telling stories like the ones found in Third Wheel, I feel a little bit less scared and a little bit less lonely and, despite myself, just a little bit more hopeful.