Listen for the Light Shines at Know Theatre

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Listen for the Light: Know Theatre

In Roger Miller’s Big River, a wonderful musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, there is a song that permeates the production: “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” in which Huck sings, in his own simple way, about trying to find his personal spiritual and moral enlightenment. As I watched the thought-provoking world premiere of playwright Kara Lee Corthron’s Listen For the Light, now playing at the Know Theatre, I could not get that song out of my head, nor avoid thinking about the many associations the play has with with Huckleberry Finn. That her play evokes the same spirit and authenticity as Twain’s American classic is only to its credit.

Like Huckleberry Finn, Listen for the Light takes place in the pre-Civil War American midwest–a Mormon enclave in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844. Its three main characters, each in their own way, are also “waiting for the light to shine”. Lula, age seventeen, has been selected to be the 44th wife of “the Prophet”, Mormon founder Joseph Smith, but has her doubts and is separated from the community by Smith and forced to pray until she gets a sign from God and willingly accepts the marriage. Like Huck, Lulu is uneducated, unspoiled and unfiltered, and her natural moral understanding allows her to spot the fallacies and facades of organized religion a mile away. Smith selects Eli to be her temporary guard, who like Twain’s Jim is a runaway slave, but, unlike Jim, is erudite and talented both in education and carpentry. Although they are worlds apart, Eli and Lulu gain a mutual respect, understanding, and affection. Eli, however, is waiting for his own revelation, both to ease the torment of the memories of his dead wife and daughter, and to find some way to bring moral clarity to the country in the form of abolition. Finally, there is Joseph Smith himself, embodying Twain’s King and Duke, who despite some good intentions recognizes that he is at heart a charismatic charlatan, desperate for attention, and freely admits to himself that his many wives are a reflection of his own carnal failings (an “affliction”) and not a sacrament. He, too, is waiting for the light, hoping to receive a true sign from God justifying his work which has been withheld up to now despite his pretensions.

These three characters are luminously portrayed by three veterans of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and the Ensemble Theatre. Tess Talbot perfectly captures Lulu’s exuberance and tempestuousness early on as well as her more tamed spirit in the second act. Darnell Pierre Benjamin, always a consistent Cincinnati artist, is equally compelling as Eli, whose well-controlled emotions mask a storm of self-doubt and anger below. Finally, there is Josh Katawick, as Joseph Smith, who has perhaps the heaviest burden to carry: a deeply flawed character who must nonetheless command some measure of the audience’s respect and empathy. He does so with consummate skill and confidence. The trio are ably backed up by Tamara Winters’ tight direction, an effective scenic design by Sarah Beth Hall, evocative costuming by Noelle Johnson, and intricate, subtle lighting and sound design by Andrew J. Hungerford and Doug Borntrager, respectively.

Kara Lee Corthron’s script is at its best when it focuses on the thoughtful, authentic dialogue between the three main characters and their provocative self-reflection. Some additional theatrical devices were used which were, in my opinion, somewhat less effective. In addition to their main characters, each of the actors plays several other minor roles in some scenes. Often these were somewhat confusing, or at the very least distracting, and did not always seem essential to advancing the plot. For example, in a few scenes Benjamin and Katawick play two other of Smith’s wives, and while amusing, broke the mood for me. If the other characters were absolutely necessary, I would have preferred some additional cast members playing the roles. Another device used by the play was a large video screen behind the action, which at times depicted props which were otherwise pantomimed by the actors (for example, a newspaper, a book, or a chair) and at other times displayed their imagination (Eli’s vision of what his daughter would look like now, or Lula’s fantasy of shooting a deer). I suppose the effect was meant to emphasize the idea that our perception shapes our reality. The videos (also created by Doug Borntrager) were certainly well-designed and eye-catching, but again, to me, detracted from the overall more genuine experience I was feeling. Other pyrotechnics used later in the production also seemed somewhat contrived and unnecessary.

My son, who was with me, commented after the show that he saw Joseph Smith’s arrogance, his self-serving twisting of history and religious doctrine, and the Mormons’ relentless migration west to be a microcosm of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, with all their negative connotations and repercussions. I suppose in some ways that analysis is justified. But then I thought about Huckleberry Finn again, and reflected that Twain’s and Corthron’s shared vision is more positive than that. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to reveal that all three characters–even Joseph Smith–achieve some measure of redemption and revelation, both figurative and literal, by the end of the play. Fundamentally the message I took away from the play is that the American experience promises that, despite all our acknowledged flaws and moral failings, our idealism somehow still manages to find opportunities for hope, understanding, tolerance and enlightenment. I look forward to experience more of Corthron’s vision in the future and I am grateful for the Know Theatre for letting me share in this one.

Listen for the Light continues through May 13. Tickets can be purchased at 513-300-KNOW or knowtheatre.org.

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