Listen for the Light, World Premiere at Know, is a Story of Transformation

Review by Liz Eichler of Listen for the Light: Know Theatre

Listen for the Light by Kara Lee Corthron is loosely based on stories surrounding the history of the Mormon religion, including a character based on Elijah Abel, a documented freeman, carpenter, and Mormon convert who lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1840’s. The production at Know Theatre is not designed to be a documentary, but it is a fearless modern telling of the conflict of religion, race, and women’s rights, and how dissimilar people can connect and positively influence others, despite their flaws. This play intrigued me, encouraging me to do more research on this often-misunderstood religion.

The three actors portray at least 10 characters, which “adds to the theatricality” of the piece according to author Corthron, who happened to be sitting next to me during the world premiere performance Friday at Know Theatre. Originally designed to be 7 actors, she considered a smaller cast and liked the results. The play is ably directed by Tamara Winters, Know’s Associate Artistic Director.

The performances of all three actors (Darnell Pierre Benjamin, Josh Katawick, and Tess Talbot) are worth more than the ticket price. They embody three main characters: freeman Eli, Joseph Smith himself, founder and prophet of the Mormon religion, to his newest young bride, Lula. The three also embody other characters without gender or racial constraints. It is that process that is so incredible to watch. When Tess Talbot removes her hat and replaces her skirt, you witness a physical transformation, like watching a butterfly break from the cocoon and back again, fast forwarding and reversing. Talbot’s character Lula is a sweet country girl, fidgeting, pacing, and restless to be free, confined in the cabin to pray and contemplate whether she’s been called to be Smith’s 44th wife (not a typo). She is guarded by stoic carpenter Eli (Benjamin) and develops a warm regard for him over her two-month captivity. He eventually shares his story with her, and in a more modern time, this may have been a love story. His race would make that unthinkable in the 1840’s. Eli’s motto “good is good, bad is bad” does not hold true for a man of his color, but he clings to his belief that God is good and he will receive his reward with Him in heaven. Katawick delivers a complex and admirable performance as Joseph Smith. We see his magnetism, and we see his failings. A man with no book smarts raising to such heights based on confidence, or as Eli says “I understand that your will is too strong to be anything else but right.” Imagine.

The scenery design (Sarah Beth Hall) supports this performance, as it is a wooden cage, holding in the characters, and keeping some unsavory characters out. It allows us to see transformations. The lighting (Andrew J. Hungerford) and projections (Doug Borntrager) are a powerful force here, in fact another character all together. The musical interludes are “recomposed” by Borntrager, making it modern but familiar.

You will be moved by this play. Although the first act is stronger than the second, and not all of the monologues are successful, there is a lot of humor which keeps you interested in these characters. It also encourages contemplation of the boxes or cages in which many of us find ourselves–religious, gender, political or racial beliefs of our own or others. It forced me to research the characters and Mormonism in the US, and check in with a Mormon friend, who has been a testament to the strength of the religion for supporting clean living and strong family values. The author said she was inspired by the book Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, which explores the extremists in the LDS faith. I’m not certain how well this will play with Mormons, as it focuses on Joseph Smith the flawed man, not the inspirational prophet and leader, but for people who are interested in a story of transformation, and want encouragement of how far we have come, it is inspiring. The show continues through May 13. Tickets can be purchased at 513-300-KNOW or knowtheatre.org.

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