Sound and Fury are Part of Listening for the Light at Know Theatre

Review by Ken Stern of Listen for the Light: Know Theatre

What’s more improbable than history, the actual lives lived in the past? Who would believe a story of a visiting angel telling a man to dig up gold plates that have holy text inscribed on them and creating a whole new religion from that? That is the truth Mormons tell of Joseph Smith and his starting their religious movement.

It is hard to believe that Joseph Smith would embrace an escaped slave, invite him to be one of his 17 apostles and make him a trusted adviser. That is not historical. It is the tale Kara Lee Corthron spins in her play, Listen for the Light, playing at the Know Theatre through May 13.

See this world premiere production and admire the strong acting talent Cincinnati theatres have nourished. Outstanding performances are delivered by Darnell Pierre Benjamin as Eli, Josh Katawick as Joseph, and Tess Talbot as Lula. The three are an ensemble cast, and each play multiple roles, but they shine as their main characters. Tamara Winter deserves credit for her direction. She does much more than keep the cast in motion.

Eli is an escaped slave in the Frederick Douglass mold: smart, thoughtful, religious, ethical, striving for justice, and burdened by the personal tragedy of the deaths of his wife and daughter, who died on their journey north. His is a quiet power, expressed in facial expressions and gestures.

Katawick’s Smith has a fierce integrity, even as he questions his own faith and wonders if he is a prophet or a fraud. Like Benjamin, Katawick twists up his face as he looks skyward, imploring God. His is a more explosive and spirited performance, but it is always authentic to the character portrayed.

Talbot’s Lula, a 17 year old pioneer daughter, is an animated, quick talking, wear-her-heart-and-her-head-on-her sleeve virgin. Tapped by Smith to be his 43rd wife, Smith has entrusted her to Eli’s care until the spirit of the lord moves in her to accept Smith’s proposal. But while the backwoods teen is illiterate, she has as much integrity as her fellow protagonists. She is truly waiting for God’s voice to tell her He wants her to be Smith’s bride. And the voice doesn’t come. Not in Act I.

The action takes place in and around a sturdy, well planked interior of a log cabin, alternatively Eli’s home and the town store. Pegs adorn the walls from which costume changes hang. This seems shoehorned into the left half of the stage. The right half is open, the back wall serving as a screen for grainy black and white film clips that match the scene. These clips are as varied as Eli’s baby and a wolf in the wild. (Doug Borntrager designed sound and video.)

While Lula awaits word from above, the people of Nauvoo, Illinois are about to run the Mormons out of town. Smith catalyzes this action by ordering his followers to destroy a printing press and torch the building. That fire washes over the audience, courtesy of Andrew Hungerford’s usual stellar lighting design. Smith eventually is taken to jail, a death sentence when a mob breaks in. The blood appearing on his shirt is a great touch made possible by designers Sarah Beth Hall (scenic and prop design) and Noelle Wedig (costume design).

This all sounds serious, and is, but there are plenty of opportunities to laugh. Among the many minor characters are two of Smith’s wives, played by Benjamn and Katawick. Their head-to-toe brown cloaks, heads covered by bonnets, cannot hide their height or maleness. Their appearances prime the audience to smile, which is coached into laughter by the wives’ conversations and caricature actions. Playwright Corthron may need to rethink the balance of breaking tension with distracting attention from the plot.

But credit Corthron for weaving miracles into the script and the design team for creating the expanding light and swirling smoke, which pulls Lula out of the cabin, making the miracle real. That is only one of the production’s miracles. But this story, which is religious for each of its main characters in ways uniquely authentic to each, has Eli saved from a dire fate saved by a less obvious miracle.

In a flashback near the end, Smith baptizes Eli, and, symbolically, his wife and daughter, telling Eli “They’re saved. And so are you. [a pause] You don’t believe me.” Eli’s reply: “I trust no man.” And Joseph’s response: “Trust God. If I give you nothing else in this life, I want to give you hope.”

The real Joseph Smith’s creation of a religious movement must have come from his ability to give people hope even as he spun tales of angels and buried golden tablets. Corthron is true to that version of the Mormon founder. Her characters, like real people are battered. They also hold on to hope. The entire cast and production crew is true to the vision presented in this world premiere.

The show continues through May 13, Wednesdays through Sundays (matinee performances), A pre-show brunch is an option on April 30th. Tickets can be purchased at 513-300-KNOW or knowtheatre.org.

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