A Utah Theater Review by Ben Christensen
Sometimes big things really do come in small packages. The Echo Theatre’s Little Happy Secrets is a small production. It’s an eighty-minute play featuring only four actors, produced on Echo’s small stage, barely large enough to contain the couch and dining room table that make up the set. Yet these four actors use these eighty minutes and this intimate space to tell a big story—the story of Claire, a recently-returned LDS missionary and BYU student who finds herself falling in love with her roommate, Brennan. As the story unfolds, the audience is invited to ponder such deep issues as sexuality, love, faith, and justice.
The tiny Echo Theatre is the perfect venue for this play. The play is largely a confessional monologue delivered by the main character, Claire, with a few scenes she describes acted out by her and the three other characters. The intimate setting, which places Claire just a few feet from those sitting in the front row and not much farther from those in the back row, creates the feeling that we are part of a one-on-one conversation with a close friend. The theatre’s location on University Avenue in downtown Provo is also ideal, as the majority of the play is set at BYU and contains multiple insider references to local phenomena, like Movies 8’s 50-cent Tuesdays. The only downside of the venue is the club next door, whose loud music distracts from the play’s frequent quiet moments. The play’s own music, by contrast, consists of occasional live piano pieces composed and performed by Julianna Boulter Blake, each providing a subtle mood-setter appropriate to the scene it accompanied.
The casting, likewise, is perfect. Aubrey Reynolds as Brennan is strikingly beautiful, at first coming across as a superficial narcissist but revealing depth as the play progresses. Kevin O’Keefe plays the handsome, well-intentioned but clueless Carter equally well. Heidi Smith Anderson stands out for her expert handling of some particularly difficult scenes as Claire’s sister, Natalie. The discomfort she shows when Claire reveals her feelings for Brennan are all too familiar to any lesbian or gay man who has had the misfortune of awkwardly coming out to someone who simply does not understand. Later, when Natalie experiences a personal tragedy, the grief Anderson portrays is devastatingly real; tears cannot be faked from ten feet away.
While the supporting cast is superb, this play is primarily a monologue. As such, it could not succeed without a strong lead. Jessica Myer delivers in spades. She transitions from monologue to scene flawlessly, often making the switch from one sentence to the next. She demonstrates a wide range of emotion, from giddy infatuation to anxious longing to utter despair, and the most impressive thing is that she conveys this all while wearing a smile. True to her character, Myer shows us a young woman determined to remain optimistic and faithful despite the quiet desperation she cannot ignore. Myer’s Claire clearly does not want to reveal the intense emotions she’s experiencing—she would like them to remain her little happy secrets—but the emotions come through seemingly against the character’s best efforts. If I were to find flaws in Myer’s performance, I would have to nitpick at the few times she briefly stumbled over a line. At times I found it distracting that Myer did not pantomime actions her character was performing—picking up napkins, talking on the phone, playing the piano—but I suspect these were not her choices but the director’s, and it wouldn’t surprise me if during rehearsal the scenes were done both with and without pantomime, and the lesser of two distractions was chosen.
In addition to casting and choice of venue, director Brighton Nicole Sloan and her artistic staff get a lot of things right. The sparse set, decorated with framed photos hanging from wires in the background, emphasizes the intimacy of the story and the feeling that we are seeing snapshots of someone’s personal life. The lighting, not much more than a spotlight here and there to show the audience where to focus, fits well with the overall motif of simplicity. The one directing choice I question comes at a pivotal moment of the play, when Claire kisses Brennan. Just as most of the play, this scene is done through a combination of monologue and acting, but the key action, the kiss, happens only in the monologue—we don’t see it. I can only speculate as to the reasons for this choice, whether it was due to the actresses’ discomfort, the director’s fear of public reaction to a lesbian kiss onstage, or if it was made for purely artistic reasons, but it felt like a cop-out to me. It seemed this production, which deserves praise for pushing so many boundaries in a conservative community like Provo, was afraid to push that one final boundary.
On a personal note, I found Little Happy Secrets incredibly touching. It is an honest, heartfelt portrayal of the turmoil that can only be experienced when forces as deeply-ingrained as sexuality and faith collide. Melissa Leilani Larsen’s Little Happy Secrets, whose script won the 2009 Association for Mormon Letters Drama Award and is published in New Play Project’s anthology Out of the Mount, will be shown at the Echo Theatre through February 23rd. Do not miss your chance to see for yourself what big things come in small packages.