A Place in the Sun (drama)
Eric R. Samuelsen
Genre: Rock Opera
I recently had the opportunity to see a new rock opera by a group ofLDS musicians called Grain. I thought I would share a brief reviewof it with the list.
Grain is a local rock band; I believe they're located out of AmericanFork. They're very young -- probably average age 24. My sense is thatJack Donaldson, their lead singer and rhythm guitarist, and BryanHall, their lead guitarist, do most of the writing, but I could bewrong. The other band members are Matt Western (bass), Winston Lee(keyboards) and Shane Fillmore (drums).
Grain's opera is called A Place in the Sun. It tells the story of ayoung man named Alden Barrett, who committed suicide in 1971. Barrett kept a journal, and after his death, his parents shared acopy of the journal with a writer named Beatrice Sparks. She thenused some entries from the journal to produce a book called Jay'sJournal, which became a national best-seller. But Jay's Journal usedapproximately 25 entries from Barrett's journal, and fleshed them outwith some 60 other entries, which either came from other kids'stories (Sparks' version) or were made up by Sparks (the Barrettfamily's version). At any rate, Jay's Journal describes someone whowas involved with devil worship and the occult, which Alden Barrettwas not.
A Place in the Sun, then, is an attempt to recapture the real storyof Alden Barrett from the sensationalized account depicted in Jay'sJournal. (I remember something about Jay's Journal, and may actuallyhave read the thing, some twenty years ago. Anyone on the listremember any more about it?)
In the first of two acts, we see the story of Alden Barrett -- hisdreams, his problems with drugs, girlfriend problems, problems withhis family, a failed attempt to get psychiatric help, and hiseventual suicide. The first act is quite long and fairly abstract,impressionistic. We get Barrett's story from his subjective point ofview, and at times aren't sure whether we're seeing reality, afantasy, a dream, or wish fulfillment. The first act ends with hissuicide.
The second act begins with his family attempting to deal with thereality of his suicide, the break up of his parents' marriage, andtheir attempts to understand where they went wrong. It then showsSparks' exploitation of their story and of their pain, and hersuccess, her celebrity and fame. Finally, we see Barrett's parentsand siblings putting the Sparks book behind them, coming together ina final anthem of hope and reconciliation.
The biggest strengths of the piece are first of all, the music, andsecond of all, the passion and energy of the work as a whole. Grainis a first-rate band. The music had a retro feel to it -- it remindedme of The Who (especially Quadrophenia) and Pink Floyd. One criticmentioned Steppenwolf, and I can see that too. If you like that kindof heavy rock and roll music -- I do, very much -- then this piece isterrific to listen to. The band definitely has its own sound, whichis another way of saying that there's not enough melodic variety,probably.
But I liked it.
I also like the passion and energy of these kids. They're veryyoung, but they're genuine artists; they really get inside the headof this troubled young man.
First of all, the story borders on incoherance. In the production Isaw, the director told the story with dance and stylized movement,and I think it needs that; the piece is so impressionistic, it's veryeasy to lose track of the story-line. What I saw was a grad studentproduction, with zero budget and a bunch of the band's friendsacting; even so, it was remarkably compelling. But realchoreography, with professional dancers and singers, special affectsand lighting could make a big difference. It really wants to be amulti-media piece.
Second, the play really goes after Beatrice Sparks. The point ofview of this opera is that Jay's Journal is a fraud and a ripoff anda deliberate act of assault against the Barrett family. I don't knowanything about her or about her book, although I vaguely remember somecontroversy about it some years ago. But it doesn't treat her verynicely. (That's also not the main focus of the piece. But it's anelement that could be controversial, although I don't think it'slibelous.)
But although nothing directly LDS appears in the work, I think it's aterrific piece of LDS fiction. The opera does not pull punches;Barrett's main problems were schizophrenia and drugs, and the operatakes us inside his mind; it's a frightening journey. And then wemeet the author-as-vampire, as Beatrice Sparks exploits the family'spain. But the final images are of healing, hope, forgiveness.It's really very powerful.
It needs to be cut, by about 45 minutes, most from the first act. Itneeds a really good, imaginative director. But I think that Grain isan amazing band, and I think that this work deserves to be produced.
© 1997 Eric R. Samuelsen