Pilot Program: Making Polygamy Personal

Pilot Program runs through 19 April 2015 at Plan-B Theater in Salt Lake City.

Reviewed by Stephen Carter

A blossom of faith

That’s what opened in front of Abigail—just for an instant—when her stake president called her and her husband, Jacob, to be part of a pilot program to reintroduce plural marriage into the Mormon Church.

Everything in her brain said no.

But that blossom.

Like most of us in Mormon culture, Abigail believed in the dyadic relationship. Two people come together, commit, love. And then, over time, their souls slowly bleed into one another, drawing them closer and closer until they share much of the same being.

But there are also these two uncomfortable facts: 1. Many early LDS Church leaders, including founder Joseph Smith, presented plural marriage as an ordinance essential for exaltation. 2. Though earthly polygamy has been recanted by the LDS Church, eternal polygamy is still alive and well. A man can definitely still be sealed to more than one woman.

In the contemporary mind, polygamy reeks of insular compounds, underage brides, and predatory patriarchs. It’s a form of control, not an incubator of relationship. It’s for the building of babies, not intimacy. All of this makes it difficult to contemplate plural marriage as any kind of valid spiritual practice.

However, Melissa Leilani Larson’s new play, Pilot Program, takes us along for Abigail’s leap of faith and shows us a new landscape.

Larson begins by presenting a refreshing setup: Abigail and her husband are, of all things, a liberal Mormon couple. They have education; they are at ease with academia; they are cyberspace savvy. And the husband is the reluctant one, unmotivated by the prospect of extra sex. They take the calling on Abigail’s faith.

The first half of the play skillfully immerses us in this couple’s bewildered attempt at launching their calling. How do they find a new wife? (When they bring a candidate in—one of Abigail’s former students—they are as nervous and tongue-tied as she is.) How can they integrate her into the family? How can the marriage be for all of them? And as they stumble along, they never lean on precedent, they don’t call on Church leaders for advice, they don’t reference the lives of early Mormon polygamists. Rather, they feel this new ground out for themselves, finding a personal way forward. Inventing their own wheel.

Larson constructs this setup with precision and patience, showing us every personal turn as the triad begins to develop, leaving the characters thoroughly open to our scrutiny and, thus, our empathy. I was completely absorbed with Abigail, Jacob, and Heather’s attempts to make something completely new out of their lives—watching them enter this crucible so awkwardly, so openly, so bravely.

But all the authorial patience that makes the first half of the play so rich begins to fade during the second half. The budding sisterhood between the two women all but disappears from the narrative; a baby is born but only appears for a few scenes, dropping out after a conflict flashes between Abigail and Heather; the action settles into documenting sporadic upsets that pepper the family’s new routine. The ending took me completely by surprise. So much had been set up, but so little had been explored.

Larson has crafted a potent, thought-provoking play, but only its first act. With this beginning, she has summoned us into a resonant metaphor for faith: its ability to open us to our enormous potential, to break us out of the illusions that invisibly constrict our hearts, to make new beings out of us—but only by turning our lives upside down.

Pilot Program reminded me of the first episode of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. That is both a compliment and an appeal. Pilot Program’s other episodes now need to be written, with the same patience that enticed us in—opening the blossom of faith that started all this, letting its unknown fruit begin to manifest. If this play is any indication of Larson’s abilities, such an exploration is eminently within her power.

I’ll be first in line for a ticket.

Buy tickets to Pilot Program here.