Expectations of others are dangerous. One should not dictate there decisions based on what is to be expected of them as a member of a group. We’re individuals; we have a duty to ourselves to forge our own paths with a distinct sense of honor and control crafted from our experiences. Sure there will be crossover for many of us as we share similar if not the same experiences, but at least we know our beliefs and choices are ours, not the will of another. But it’s not so easy for some. If seized at a young age or vulnerable time in one’s life, knowledge, thought, and morality can be twisted by the whim of one who supposedly offers love and salvation. I am of course referring to cults. In such a scenario how can we accuse the actions of a member if all they’ve ever been taught and all they’ve ever known has been by and for the service of the cult?
Based on true events, Exit 27 by Aleks Merilo follows four Lost Boys, exiles from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints cult community, who, among hundreds of other Lost Boys, were abandoned in the Utah desert for their “sins,” and forced to survive in a ramshackle hut in a world they’ve been raised to believe will eternally damn them should they associate with it. As an opportunity arises (in their eyes) to be accepted back into their community and families, some of the boys, desperate to be “good” again, conspire to earn their way back into “heaven.”
All four of the Lost Boys share the majority of their stage time but the emphasis is placed mainly on Ryker, their de facto leader (Thomas Burke), and the newest arrival to their hovel, Brodie (Sam Domino). Supporting these two are one of the shack’s original members, Dodge (Nathaneal Dunaway), and the timid, mentally shaken Shyler (Sam Stinson). Each of the Lost Boys maintains a consistent sense of their character: Burke is determined and hopeful, Dunaway is the reluctant tough guy, Stinson is quiet and sensitive, and Domino is a thinker and a doer. Each actor has at least one moment (typically during the more vicious scenes) that were truly unsettling to watch, oftentimes stemming from their misguided ideal of goodness. That being said, the performances were generally lackluster. My major concern with the production is shared by all four leads; they portray a startling scarceness of drive and passion given the desperation of their situation. We are offered a portrait of young men dying in the desert, torn from their families, unaware of how the world outside of their former community works, some of whom are hell-bent on returning to their cult (an act they often equate with returning to heaven), and yet I never got a sense of motivation or anxiety that should come with such a predicament. They’re ironically uninspired for such devout characters. Instead we are made to witness many scenes in which characters interrupt/shout over one another in an attempt to create tension that comes off as tedious.
Exit 27’s design was mostly decent throughout. Wesley Riddles’ set design subtly created an arid vibe through a generally worn looking location. Scrap metal and decrepit wooden furniture make much of the Lost Boys camp which is strewn with the dust and dirt of the desert, though there may have been a little too many small, loose set pieces as actors habitually tripped on them during scene transitions. Amy Lewis’ lighting design worked for the most part, but the fades to black prior to the “letter” scenes often seemed unnecessary as the audience clearly saw each scene’s respective actor place himself where he needs to be before the light hits him. A simple transition may have served the production better, and hastened the production. The production’s soundtrack made use of African American spirituals and working songs to get across, as stated in the program by production consultant, Dr. Logan Sparks, the shared themes of escaping slavery, struggle, and salvation. Furthermore, quite a few of the recordings they used were sung by a children’s choir which added emphasis to the tragedy of these (for all intents and purposes) children living a life under mind control. Though the first act of the production had a peculiar habit of reusing the same segment of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot between scenes. It was an apt choice to add to the soundtrack, but I question the repetition, especially since plenty of other tracks are used through the production.
Overall, the production needs a lot of work. There was clear evidence that the cast and crew did their research into the Lost Boys of the FLDS Church, but that effort does not shine onstage. The plot at hand is fascinating, but, as portrayed, I struggled to maintain investment in the Lost Boy’s plight.
Southwest Theatre Productions’ Exit 27 continues playing at the Boyd Vance Theatre at 8pm on Friday and Saturday, and 4pm on Sunday until January 31st.