Murders & Marriages 

A ghastly massacre torments the women in Two-Headed at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Chris Seibert (left) and Holly Holsinger face grim memories together in Two-Headed.
  • Chris Seibert (left) and Holly Holsinger face grim memories together in Two-Headed.
It's obscene that so many people (including our vice president) still think Iraq was responsible for 9/11. But more troubling is how unaware most of us are about grisly moments from our country's history. One of these was a Mormon-led massacre of nearly 120 people that happened, coincidentally, on September 11 in the year 1857. It is the driving event of the Julie Jensen play Two-Headed, a co-production of Cleveland Public Theatre and TITLEWave Theatre.

This deeply interior work, beautifully performed by a two-person cast, does an excellent job detailing the psychological trauma imposed on two Mormon women. We first see them at 10 years old on the day of the massacre, and then at 10-year intervals until age 50. But the playwright almost assumes that the audience knows something about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and that betrays a grievously misplaced faith in our education system.

In brief, a wagon train headed to California with 120 people from Missouri and Arkansas stopped to rest in the Mountain Meadows valley in Utah. Unbeknownst to them, Mormon spiritual leader and Utah territorial governor Brigham Young had declared martial law there, leading to a serious rise in tension in the community. Mormons felt they were under attack -- and not without reason, since only 13 years earlier, their founder, Joseph Smith, had been killed by vigilantes.

After an initial skirmish at the Meadows between the travelers and a band of marauding Mormons (together with a collaborating Indian tribe), the emigrants -- out of water and ammunition -- agreed to be led out of the valley under the protection of the Mormons. But once the group was safely strung out along the trail, the supposed protectors turned on their defenseless charges and killed them all, except for a few very young children, who were eventually distributed among Mormon households.

The play begins as Lavinia, a high-spirited but sensitive girl, watches this carnage from a perch in a tall tree. Worse, she learns that the slaughter is being led by her father, a commander of the Mormon militia, forging a familial guilt that will haunt her for years.

A couple weeks later, Lavinia is teasing her uptight friend Hettie about a two-headed calf and other wondrous items that are kept in the nearby cellar. Lavinia does reveal one item, some frilly silk underwear previously owned by "a Missouri woman." As children will do, they parrot back comments about the incident that they heard from their parents, with Lavinia asserting, "They deserved it; they called their ox Joseph Smith!"

As the girls grow into women and the decades pass, their lives and their friendship become much more complex. Lavinia gushes over an unseen friend, Jane, whose corpse they must deal with early on. With polygamy and intermarriage the way of their world, Lavinia later marries Jane's ex, Ezra. Hettie becomes a wife of Lavinia's father (a coupling that infuriates Lavinia), and she bears a child, Tess, who also grows up to marry Ezra. (And you think your Thanksgiving dinner seating arrangements are a challenge.)

Playwright Jensen refers repeatedly to the two-headed calf and other animal monstrosities to symbolize the schizoid nature of the two women, who have been thrust into a world they accept, but can't understand. And even though Lavinia and Hettie share both love and hostility, their relationship is restrained compared to Lavinia's longing for Jane ("I miss her like the right side of my body," she says).

The perceptive direction of Greg Vovos keeps this rather fragmented material from unraveling into a pile of loose threads. Using set designer Lydia Chanenka's stylized, leafless, and exposed-roots tree as a centerpiece, Vovos reveals the roots of Lavinia's and Hettie's tortured religious and moral existence.

As Hettie, Chris Seibert is in total command of her somewhat dim but always intriguing character. Seibert smoothly navigates Hettie through the years, subtly altering her posture and attitude while always maintaining the through-line of this woman, who battles to retain the friendship of someone who loves her much less than the memory of a long-dead corpse.

In the more demonstrative role of Lavinia, Holly Holsinger properly retains a haunted look from the horror seared into her brain as a youngster. Even though Lavinia's evolution is less defined than Hettie's, Holsinger emits the rage that drives the production. Whether she's disparaging her father ("He's as crazy as a ripsaw!") or marveling at her daughter's career as a midwife ("At least it gives her the proper perspective on a relationship with a man"), she provides the fuel that ignites the passion.

Because of the time jumps and glancing references, this 90-minute play almost requires two viewings to fully appreciate. But you should be amply fascinated by just one.

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