BWW Feature: The Book That 'Started' Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA Gifted to Playwright by Salt Lake Woman, Utah Rep Reveals
Who gave Playwright Tony Kushner his first copy of "The Book of Mormon"?
Mary Fanning Driggs, a Salt Lake City resident and frequent actress at the city's fully professional Pioneer Theatre Company.
While the marketing team was doing advance background research for Utah Repertory Theater Company's sold-out production of ANGELS IN AMERICA, Driggs came forward to share their encounter while he "was a kid in Louisiana."
In his book "The World Only Spins Forward," Kushner relates receiving the book from Driggs, while he was her dorm counselor at a McNeese State University summer program which his parents helped run. "I adored her. And she adored me," he wrote.
"Tony's mother was my double reed teacher and his father was my orchestra conductor," Driggs explained. "Tony taught drama and directed me in 'The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent,' 'The Tempest' and an original play (for which he wrote me a song). We talked a lot about religion, and I gave him a copy of 'The Book of Mormon.' Years later we saw each other at a preview for ANGELS. He thanked me for 'starting all of this,' and I expressed shock that he had just won a Pulitzer. We reconnected when he came to the University of Utah a few years ago. I finally got my signed copy of the play, and he has since mentioned me by name a few times."
And she adds: "I adored him. He instilled a love and excitement in me for live theater that inspired my choice to pursue it as my career."
The Mormon Church considers "The Book of Mormon" to be a sacred text and companion to the Bible. Inside the copy gifted to Kushner, Driggs inscribed "something devastating," he writes in "The World Only Spins Forward" - something "so daunting that it took me like a year and a half to get around to reading it," according to Kushner's account. "And then I read it, and it's... Mark Twain famously called it 'chloroform in print.' It's just terrible. It's a terrible book."
Terrible enough that millions of adherents around the globe read it daily.
With scenes based in Salt Lake City and characters from the headquarters of the Mormon Church, residents - and reviewers - enthusiastically responded to Utah Rep's staging of ANGELS, with many performances sold out and glowing written accounts.
"I was astounded at the quality of this production and of the play itself," wrote Sara Claverie on the Utah Theatre Bloggers website. "ANGELS OF AMERICA is performed spectacularly by a wonderful cast, and I would highly recommend it to all. The entire production comes together to portray the profound script meaningfully and expertly. The quality of production allows the script to shine, and it is highly worth experiencing."
"Utah Rep's production [of ANGELS] at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center truly shines," wrote Daisy Blake on another review website, Gephardt Daily, by the "brave" company. "Artistic Director JayC Stoddard directs the play, [and he] really pares down the performances and the production values to present a truly exposed, brave, stark production, which at the same time pulsates with so much heart."
"It's exciting to participate in 'Angels in America' to tell a story that is still applicable to today's problems -- and in a place where these problems are looked past," said Lucas Stewart, who plays Joe Pitt. "We have the opportunity to share a story that, sadly, resonates with too many people in this state. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, in Utah where this play won't be seen a whole lot.
"I hope audiences will take a step back and look at the people struggling in their life and to open their eyes to new experiences and other cultures. Mormons have a culture the same way LGBT+ people have a culture. We all have different life experiences but we all share the same world."
ANGELS is an epic work, which demands to be revisited again and again. The storyline spans the Reagan-Bush eras and spirals around the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York, weaving the lives of historical with fictional characters, including Joe Pitt, a closted gay Mormon husband, and his mother, a Salt Lake City resident, who travels to New York City when Joe announces his homosexuality by phone.
While Kushner and Driggs share an adoration of each other, the actress and the playwright don't share an adoration of the book.
"For the record, I do not agree with Tony's opinion of 'The Book of Mormon,'" Driggs said. "I love the book and have found many answers and much comfort within its pages.
"But I still love Tony!"
Kushner does, however, share an adoration of Driggs with many in the Salt Lake City community. She's a Ray of Sunshine.
Part 1 of ANGELS, "Millennium Approaches," was staged by Utah Rep May 30-June 9, with Part 2, "Perestroika," to be produced next year by the same cast and creative team.
With importance of the Pulitzer- and multiple Tony Award-winning ANGELS, the groundbreaking and innovative company created a show-specific website, www.AngelsInAmericaUtah.com.
Continuing the mission of Utah Rep to stage rarely produced theater, following ANGELS the company will present the regional premiere of AMERICAN PSYCHO by composer Duncan Sheik (SPRING AWAKENING) on Nov. 30-Dec. 15, 2019, as part of the additional objective to present new and unexpected works in the state. www.utahrep.org includes a list of the company's history of productions, with details and reviews of each show.