Trail of Dreams (drama)
Steven Kapp Perry, James Arrington, Marvin Payne
Benson Y. Parkinson
On Friday, August 1, I made the drive to American Fork tosee Trail of Dreams, the sesquicentennial musical by JamesArrington, Marvin Payne, and AML-List contributor Steven KappPerry. I was late arriving, not by the clock but the calendar,as this was the second to last day of the run. I'm happy toreport the play is a must-see. I heartily recommend it to alllist members who are able to make the journey. That's not a vainrecommendation -- Steve has announced here that there will be aspecial run next week (August 19-22) as part of BYU's EducationWeek, and another September 18 through November 22 at theValentine Theater just northwest of the American Fork temple.
Trail of Dreams is written in a popular idiom. The songscarry less emotional weight than another medium might, but theymake up for it with variety, and by the time you're done you'vebeen through a good range of emotions. The show is 2 hours and10 minutes, with the intermission after 90 minutes, but itdoesn't seem overly long, and I think needs the length to arriveat a climax so strong. There is relatively little dialog in theshow. The bulk of the action is carried by the songs, and theseare consistently clever or moving as the moment demands. (Steve's the musician, and if I'm not mistaken the lyricist too.) One highlight is the song "Oxology," where trailmaster John Browngathers the green converts to teach them to drive oxen. Soundproblems kept me from hearing a good deal of what was going on,but what I heard was hilariously witty. Another highlight was"Oh Zion," a haunting pioneer hymn. (There are occasional slips,such as "The Ballad of Rocky Ridge's" rather banal refrain,"Those who crossed it can't forget it," but that's far from thenorm.)
The choreography and general staging seemed solid to me, theset striking. The production appeared to use community people inminor and even major rolls, and they did an effective job. Twostandouts among several from the ranks were a little girl (BrittaDayton?), highlighted a couple of times, who managed a smile thatwas strikingly radiant and utterly believable, and (I think)Shayne Hudson playing David Osborn, the camp grumbler. Hudson'sexaggerated scowl and grating whine carried the performance, butI listen for dialog, and I'm convinced a different actor withvery different mannerisms would have been as funny. Many of thecharacters speak in dialect, an effective reminder that wewere -- and are -- forged as a people, not born. I had a bit oftrouble with John Brown's accent at first -- apparently he camefrom the South. Another complaint, and again a small thing inthe broader context of the play -- a Cockney character says"bloody" repeatedly, which in England is not slang but profanity,referring to the blood of Christ. There are no other examples ofbad language in the play, and I'd just as soon they left out thisone.
This play didn't touch every base, but the reason Irecommend it so highly is the things that it got right. JanaRemy already commented on the play's sensitive and intelligenttreatment of issues related to handicaps. I was impressed with how it dealt with a crippledman who refused to ride in a wagon and ended up literally walkinghimself to death (Chris Higbee playing Robert Pearce, if I'm notmistaken). This man has the conviction that if he walks to Zion,Brigham Young has the power to heal him. A more sentimentaltreatment (such as Charlie's Monument, if I remember right)would have glorified the effort, whereas this play gave voice toboth sides, with different characters defending him as brave andnoble or deriding him as a fool. But there is a third side too,as we come to see vividly what Pearce's gesture means to him. This is a person who has had to struggle all his life, whoperhaps has only survived because he did, who has developed thealmost ferocious determination that people sometimes do afterfighting for long periods against long odds, until it's becomesecond nature and they fight even when they don't have to fight,even when it's perhaps inappropriate to fight. We come to seehim, not as someone to be pitied or admired, but as a person whois as brave and foolish as any of us before life's vagaries. Perhaps we have faith, but our faith is necessarily incomplete,and some of our choices, even in the face of faith, will beimperfect. We're drawn to him through fear and pity, becausewe've come to see he's more like us than we supposed. And whenhe dies, and in those first moments thinks he's entered Zion andbeen healed of his infirmity, we feel his intense joy andemotional release, made all the stronger by the simple, literalway this play treats death and the world of spirits and thepromise of the resurrection. On the way home I thought ofCarousel, Heaven Can Wait, A Hundred Years of Solitude, butwhatever else this play's merits, I can't think of anotherliterary work that gets that aspect quite that well.
"Oxology" is comical, but it's also true, and another thingthe play gets right. That's how we do things. A trailmaster ina California company, if he happens to take a liking to you,might let you try your hand at driving, but he's as likely as notto give you contrary directions and curse and laugh while youlurch off course and tip your wagon in the ditch. That's one wayto learn, but the Mormon way is to appoint a trailmaster to lineup the greenhorns and give them a group lesson. John Brown notesthey'll all be hopeless at first, but fairly competent by thetime they arrive in Utah. John Brown is another thing the playgets just right. He is rough and seasoned, reviles the oxen, buttempers his gruffness towards the saints. He is like the workleader on an elder's quorum service project, where the averageelder shows as much willingness, and as little competence, as theaverage drayman in the play. Marvin Payne has aged since theSaturday's Warrior video, and the added cragginess serves himhere. But John Brown is a character of immensely greater rangethan Mr. Flinders, and Payne is completely credible. Cussing orno, I think I'd have liked to see John Brown snap at one or twoof the more foolish Saints who endanger themselves or others,like the work leader does with the elders on rare occasions. Butin general, his mix of gruffness, humor, kindness, and intensedevotion to the cause was just like the real John Brown must havebeen.
I related particularly to that devotion, both as a fatherand a trailmaster myself. I'm the one who ends up marshaling thescouts or the cousins or the neighbor kids when we go into themountains. I've hiked all my life, alone mostly, and havelearned to keep an ear open and an eye on the trail and underrocks and in the shadows of logs. I come upon a rattlesnakepretty well every time I go. But when I started hiking withchildren, I found I had to concentrate twice as hard to keep themfrom stumbling or falling in the creek or getting separated oroff the trail or brushing against the stinging nettle or poisonivy or throwing rocks or kicking stones or taking switchbacks orlittering or getting spooked or having any of various bathroomaccidents (the little ones) or eating or drinking not oftenenough or too often or, like me, stumbling onto rattlesnakes. It's pretty stressful really, but I love the mountains so well Ifind I'm willing to put up with quite a bit. I sing songs, Iencourage them, I pass out licorice, I know the trail and I tellthem how long it is and sweet talk them along. You've got tomove them in a way they still like hiking when they're done -- justlike John Brown has to, not so much bring the folks to Zion, asbring them to Deseret in a way that they bring Zion with them. This show is about death in large measure, focusing for much ofits length on the Martin-Willie Handcart companies. John Brownargues with increasing ardor with Angela Hopewell, the kindlyangel of death who welcomes the saints that he must leave alongthe way. He fights to the very end, because that's what it meansto be trailmaster. Angela says the ones who died have realizedtheir "dream." A word like "dream" is part of that popularidiom, and I'd probably be impatient with it except for thisplay's interpretation -- "dream" here means people's faith andaspirations for finding or building Zion here on earth. JohnBrown, just before the end, says to Angela, "So dreams cometrue?" She says yes, that dreams are what you ask for with theway you live your life. John pauses and says, "Did I ask well?" That is as true a moment as I've witnessed in the theater,because the trailmaster never rests, never stops worrying for theones who stray even when he can do nothing, never lets down hisguard even for those who appear to be safely gathered, until hereturns to the one who sent him.
Benson Parkinson lt;email@example.com; Ogden, Utah, USA
© 1997 Benson Parkinson