A Place to Admit Things to Yourself
by Marvin Payne
A journal can be a place where you admit things to yourself. You can write “Nobody knows it, but I’m scared.” You can write “Whenever I walk into a room, I instinctively glance around for a grown-up to be in charge of me.” You can write, “I picked up the phone this morning and nearly sang because there were no messages from creditors.”
Of course, first you have to discover something about yourself before you can formally admit it. This happened to me, according to my journal, on the ninth of February.
Tim Slover’s new play Hancock County, about the trial of the murderers of Joseph Smith, is up and running (I should say “rearing, raging, and resounding”) at BYU. I love being in this show. (That’s not what I admitted in my journal.) Playing J. Golden Kimball prepared me well for the abuse of English that is required of me as the hard-drinking prosecutor of the murderers. And Golden’s great sense of theatre is handy, too. Trials of this sort on the early nineteenth-century frontier were a lot closer to circus than to what we see on Law And Order (which itself is probably a lot closer to circus than what you’d see in, say, an actual courtroom).
My character, Josiah Lamborn, was a master showman. One afternoon, (this isn’t in the play, it’s just in mere history) the defense attorney in a murder case was so eloquent in his closing speech to the jury that Lamborn reckoned he couldn’t beat him for sheer emotion and power, so he faked illness and asked if the court could reconvene in the evening. In the interim, Lamborn asked the sheriff if the courtroom could be lit that night by only a single candle. No law against that, so the sheriff agreed.
When the court gathered, counsel for the prosecution hovered close to the candle, casting huge and ominous shadows on the walls, and simply intoned one scriptural passage. He said, “He who sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” He said it three times, his eyes hollowed by the ghostly candle and his shadow dancing eerily on the wall behind him. Then he leaned over the flame toward the jury, pointed an accusing finger and warned, “Ignore that at your peril!” They convicted. Pretty quick, too. The guy was way confident, as you may hereby discern.
But what about the actor playing the guy? Is he confident? I thought I was. But opposite me in the play, scorning me, shouting at me, probing me, finally burdening me with trust and then breaking me, is Stephanie Foster Breinholt. And I’m suddenly intimidated. The reason is four words (actually, two sets of two words each): “Irene Ryan” and “Utah Shakes.”
To most of you, the words “Irene Ryan” will mean very little. To a very few, mainly Nick-at-Night addicts, those words will evoke images of hog-belly and grits and the cement pond, because those words are the name of the actress who played Granny, miniscule matriarch of The Beverly Hillbillies on TV. Not a particularly intimidating image, perhaps (if you catch her without her shotgun)–and anyway, what does Granny have to do with my stage partner, Sister Breinholt? Well, some very, very, very few of you will actually tremble and quake at the words “Irene Ryan,” because you will know that they are also the name of an award established by the late actress to recognize the Very Best College Actor or Actress (actually, the politically correct thing to call both boys and girls these days is “Actor”) In The Whole Country Of America, The Only Superpower Left On The Planet Of Earth. Stephanie won it.
Speaking of trembling and quaking, the other two words, “Utah Shakes,” are what theatre workers call the impending collapse of the Wasatch Fault. No, really it’s what they call the Utah Shakespearean Festival, which a couple of years ago won a Tony Award for being The Coolest Regional Theatre In The Whole Country Of America,The Only Superpower Left On The Planet Of Earth. Now understand, the only thing about Utah Shakes that’s actually regional is its location in Cedar City. The actors are mostly from New York, which has mysteriously escaped being designated as a “region.”
Almost nobody from Utah is ever cast in a show at Utah Shakes. (This may be the subject for a whole column sometime, or perhaps for an entire online magazine.) Actually, I have one friend who I saw in a play there and thought his having been cast was miraculous, and told him so. Then he explained to me that he went to Connecticut–which is a small suburb of New York–to audition. He fooled Utah Shakes. Stephanie just went ahead and was from Utah and got cast anyway. This I found intimidating.
The way said intimidation manifested itself in my behavior was that for two months of rehearsal I never said anything to her that I hadn’t rehearsed beforehand. One night recently (my journal says February ninth) I was rehearsing something I wanted to say to her, something meant to explore and bond, not to mention “impress,” something like “Yo, Stephanie, that one scene you do with all the acting in it is totally awesome,” when I realized what I was doing. Rehearsing. I realized that I’d never talked to her–I’d only performed, conversationally. That made me laugh.
Later, backstage in the dark, waiting for the run to start, I heard her say to the cracker-munching assistant stage manager that she was starving. I popped an Altoid into her hand (Harrison Ford allegedly calls them “acting pills”) and told her it had food value. It seemed to mean something to her. She could probably tell I hadn’t rehearsed it. Something of a breakthrough. Maybe now I could get past “Irene Ryan” and “Utah Shakes” to seeing a “Kind Of Glorious Child Of God.” I mean, even without the awards. Pretty glorious.
I admitted to my journal how oddly I’d behaved. And, oddly, my journal listened. Maybe it’s not so odd, really. I’ve often found myself noticing people walking along the street with their eyes down and lips moving, people driving all alone in cars who are jabbering their heads off. Probably rehearsing. Probably not actors. Probably performers, though. Getting ready to perform, conversationally. If the weather were nicer and their windows were open, I’d toss them an Altoid–just to see what happens.
Funny thing, Josiah Lamborn ends his story in the play by admitting something to himself. He admits to himself (while denying to the jury) that Joseph Smith might have been right, and it scares Josiah’s socks off. Because he suddenly realizes why Joseph was killed. Lamborn tells the jury, who are themselves woven into the wide web of the murder conspiracy, that it wasn’t because of Joseph’s morals or his militia that he was killed, but his ideas.
“As far as I can tell, this man believed that human beings can turn into gods! How’s that for blasphemy, members of the jury? But just try to grasp it for a moment, if you can–all our meanness, and our fear, and our little hatreds, and our weakness, all turned into glory…” And it’s too big for him. Too huge of a change. He’s terrified at suddenly imagining that he was meant to be glorious. The admission that he has been touched by the flaming finger of truth comes too late.
A journal can be a place where you admit things to yourself. You can write “Nobody knows it, but I’m scared.” You can write “Whenever I walk into a room, I instinctively glance around for a grown-up to be in charge of me.” You can write “I picked up the phone this morning and nearly sang because there were no messages from creditors.” You can write the awesome admission, “Today I felt like a child of God.” And if you write it soon, it might not be too late.
I hope Stephanie has written that in her journal. I hope you have, too. Both of you may, because you are. (I’m leaning over the candle at you now.) “Ignore that at your peril!”
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.