By Kara Henry
What does it mean to grow? What does it mean to leave the comforts of our current view of the world and our personal Edens, to go out from innocence and perhaps ignorance into a better knowledge of ourselves and others? The Echo Theatre in Provo is home to the Zion’s Theater Company‘s tenth anniversary production of Farewell to Eden, by playwright Mahonri Stewart, a production that explores some of these themes.
Farewell to Eden is a period piece that tells the story of an upper-class English family whose father has just passed away. At the center of the family is Georgiana, the strong-willed, stubborn sister who is “her father’s daughter.” In perpetual rivalry with her pretty belle of a sister, she struggles with finding her true identity and discovering what romantic love might look like. Coming into the picture are her foppish brother who runs the family businesses, which their father only dabbled in as a hobby of course (no one who is truly upper-class would need to work), a devious and charming publisher, a childhood friend who has now become a family friend and several other characters.
First off, the script is one that makes me, a former English major, wish I was back in school so I could trot off to write a paper about its symbolism or perhaps deconstruct it from a feminist point of view. Yet, this depth doesn’t keep it from being accessible. Witty banter, symbolism, broad range of characters, historical figures popping in and out, romantic stories that avoid cliques, and did I mention witty banter and fully fleshed out characters? Please sign me up. I’d like to see it again to make sure I caught all the witty banter. It also has religious themes without being preachy, leaving the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions. I brought my friend along who is not Mormon, and while there are conversion stories in the show, she never felt like that was the point or that she was being preached at.
Then we come to the technical side of things. It was pretty bare bones. The set, designed by Ronn Anderson, was sparse, the lighting even sparser, and there were very few sound cues. This required the story and the acting to stand on its own. I only wish the audience hadn’t been so lit up. As a theater patron, I’m not accustomed to sitting in such bright light, and it had the effect of bringing me out of the story at times. However, the costuming, done by Brooke Wilkins, was lush, and against a relatively bare stage, they popped right into the audience. I did have a bit of an issue with some doll props. I’m not sure if it was a mix up and the actors picked up the wrong dolls in one of those jittery moments that happen to all of us, but their verbal descriptions sometimes did not match the dolls they were holding. For example, one actor refers to a doll wearing a dress with lace when the doll’s dress clearly did not have a stitch of lace on it and the doll’s next to it was full of lace. Minor issue that I’m sure will be easily fixed in subsequent shows.
And now, we come to the actors. Let’s start with the sibling set which the plot revolves around, Georgiana, Catherine and Thomas Highett. Georgiana (Sarah Stewart) is a strong-willed, intelligent woman who hides her feelings behind her sharp wit. Stewart’s physicality and presence command the stage, but I sometimes felt she didn’t let us see her vulnerable side. I wanted to see her walls come down a little bit more—perhaps this is simply my perception. She came across a little one note to me at times. However, Stewart excelled at clearly portraying the nature of her relationships with others. This cast had chemistry, and their bonds where palpable. Part of what I enjoyed most about the show was her relationships with her siblings, particularly her rivalry with Catherine (Cabrielle Andersen).
Speaking of Catherine, she has been underappreciated by her family and told she is subpar her whole life, and she believes it. She has been told she is only valuable for her outward appearance. Tension is created by one girl believing she is not “the smart one” and the other believing she is “not the pretty one,” their insecurity driving the conflict. That could have been difficult to communicate—the competition with underlying love—and these two actress did it extremely well. Andersen was a delight to watch. At one point I wrote in my notes that I was having a hard time picturing her as a person in the modern world. I mean, clearly she was a person alive now as she was right in front of me, but I just couldn’t picture it. Catherine’s character could have come off as merely frivolous and vapid throughout, but Andersen went much deeper with her portrayal.
Likewise, Kevin O’Keefe, in the part of their brother, made his seemingly foppish character come to life with humor and intelligence, with an obvious affection for his sisters. Without giving much else away, I was impressed by the development and depth O’Keefe brought to his character.
Wes Tolman plays the rake of a publisher, Derrel Fredericks, with a charisma that made him at once likable and detestable. This character could have been flat and one-dimensional, but Tolman manages to give him a little bit more humanity. The other suitor, Stephen Lockhart (Joseph Reidhead), gave a nuanced performance, although I would have liked a little bit more chemistry between him and Georgiana.
Another bright spot was Debra Woods as Mary, the family’s housekeeper/maid. She has great comic timing, and does an impeccable Cockney accent, and she brings a motherly presence to the stage.
McKenzie Steele Foster and Heather McGregor play the sisters Hannah and Esther Whitefield. As lower-class girls, they challenge the assumptions of the upper-class in their interactions. McGregor plays Esther as quiet and deferring, but intense and strong when challenged. Foster gives Hannah compassion and understanding, yet a slightly wiser air than Esther.
I thought that Matthew Davis looked the part of Brigham, and did a good job of bringing him to life—however, I often it hard to understand him when he spoke, especially when playing his other character, Harold Lowe. John (Patrick Newman) brightened the stage with his religious conviction and genuine caring for the characters he interacted with. This was a nice counter-balance to the zeal of Brigham.
Ronnie Stringfellow has done an excellent job with direction. I felt the scenes were well-balanced visually, especially when the entire cast was on stage. There are some tricky physical movements which were handled well and looked realistic, even with the audience being very close to the actors. I stayed for the question and answer session after the show, and it was clear to me that a lot of thought had gone into the character development, and it showed abundantly in the actors’ performances.
For me, the true test of theater, no matter the technical aspects and the other conventions, is 1. Did I enjoy it? 2. Did it make me think or touch me in a personal way? 3. Did it stay with me? It’s rare for me to see a show that doesn’t pass number one, but it’s not that common for a show to pass two and three. This show passes all three easily. (If I’m confessing things as a theater goer, I even had a dream about the show last night.)
I know as a theater patron, there are so many shows competing for your attention, but I don’t think you’ll regret taking the time to see this one.
Zion Theater Company presents
Farewell to Eden
Written by Mahonri Stewart
The Echo Theatre, 145 N University Ave, Provo, UT 84601
April 15-27, MON-SAT