Few great dramas have been inspired by middle America in the late 1800's, when it might seem that all people did was milk the cows, get married, and have kids. But surprisingly, Salt Lake City, Utah during this period was anything but uneventful. There were two-headed mammals (supposedly), widespread polygamy, and a major human massacre--fine fodder for an unusual and moving drama.
Two-Headed, currently running at the Women's Project under the direction of Joan Vail Thorne, was inspired by the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, when 127 Arkansas pioneers on their way to California were slaughtered by Mormons for reasons still not understood. Only one person was executed for the crime, and until recently, the massacre was largely unremembered. That is, until last year, when workers on the killing fields accidentally dug up the pioneers' bones.
Playwright Julie Jensen, who grew up in southern Utah, visited the Meadows soon after the discovery and "realized that everyone around me was descended from the victims of the massacre. I suddenly had something in common with the members of the Third Reich...I was 'two-headed' once more."
This "two-headed" term takes on many meanings in Jensen's intelligent and well-acted play. In addition to the playwright's (and her characters') sense of being part of two different worlds, the play's title also refers to the opening scene in which a ten-year-old girl, Lavinia (played by the adult Deirdre O'Connell), brags to her naive peer Hettie (played by the adult Lizbeth MacKay) that there is a two-headed farm animal locked in her cellar.
But Hettie never actually sees the fictional beast, and the play moves forward, tracing a 50-year friendship between two strong women who couldn't be more opposite each other. Throughout, Lavinia is the unstable tide to Hettie's calm waters, and Hettie's life-long desperation to smooth things over, to be safe and protected from an indistinct kind of harm, is forever clashing with Lavinia's refusal to deal directly with certain unspoken personal pains.
In a particularly moving scene, Hettie and Lavinia are sewing quilts next to their best friend Jane's coffin. As they sew, Lavinia is periodically overcome with hysteria at the thought that Jane is not only dead, but "turning black." Hettie, on the other hand, is calm--that is, until she has to shake Lavinia back into reality. It's then that we learn that it was Hettie who shot the rabies-infected Jane in order to put her out of her suffering. Hettie shows no regret about killing their friend, and Lavinia's response is a confused mixture of anger at Hettie's deed and jealousy that Hettie was the one to pull the trigger.
The two characters are steadfast in their yin-yang dynamic--almost to a monotonous extreme--through a series of events in their lives, including Hettie's marriage to Lavinia's father, Lavinia's marriage to Jane's husband, and finally, Hettie's daughter's marriage to Lavinia's husband. (Yes, things do get a bit complicated.)
The horror of the Mountain Meadows Massacre remains a silent but heavy presence until the last act, when Hettie discovers that it was not a two-headed animal in Lavinia's family's cellar after all but something even more gruesome. Indeed, the long-buried secret of the cellar is evidence of the extent to which Lavinia and her family were actually involved in the massacre. What happened on the fields, then, is not exactly a mystery, but because the impact of the massacre is not revealed until the very end, the audience gets something new to chew on after the curtain falls.