By Rachel Bland
Audiences everywhere have been taught, “a Mormon just believes.” But what happens when everything you have been taught to believe turns against you?
Since the year 2000, fourteen hundred boys have been abandoned at exit number 27 along the Arizona-Utah border by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This polygamist sect believes in the banishment of their male youth for committing minor sins such as kissing a girl or watching television.
Simply known as “the lost boys,” these young men are left to survive in a desert with no one to look after them and no real education to speak of the help them survive. Angry, confused and questioning a lifetime of teachings, most do not live to tell their own stories.
Aleks Merilo bases his play “Exit 27” on these true life events, focusing on the story of four teenage boys as they strive to become “good again” in the eyes of the church and fight to survive in their new, harsh environment.
In a 2013 interview with Broadway World, Merilo spoke about the reaction that the story triggered. “Every time I told someone what I’d learned about the FLDS or the Lost Boys, the response would be “That can’t be true,” Merilo said. “Everything seemed so fascinatingly surreal.”
Having worked with Merilo before, director Mike Ricci knew that “Exit 27” was a piece he eventually wanted to direct. Through email, Ricci said that it wasn’t until his students at North Hennepin Community College showed him “That many of the troubles in our world stem from differences of religious beliefs and the extremist views of fundamentalists,” that he knew the time was right to direct the play.
Producing a play with the themes presented in “Exit 27” certainly comes with a set of challenges. Ricci said that it was difficult at times for him and his actors to comprehend “why people are attracted to this lifestyle and belief system.”
Ricci said that “beyond that was the discovery of the insidious nature of brainwashing and intense indoctrination that goes on in these cult-like religions.”
Actor Brandon Hawfitch, who plays Ryker in the play, stated, “retaining humanity while still remaining intense was a very strange shift that at times felt foreign.”
But when it comes down to it Ricci admitted, “belief is a powerful motivator moving people to act in ways they might not ordinarily.”
“Ultimately,” Ricci said that “it’s the story of these lost boys who have no home anymore and all they want to do is to go home again. There is the idea of salvation and redemption—how does one go about achieving that in the face of insurmountable odds and what, ultimately, is the right thing to do when everything you’ve been taught is wrong, but that is all you know.”
“It’s important for people to know about this issue,” said Hawfitch. “As well as the fact that it is a present and real problem right here in America.”
Although many of their stories have died in the desert, Merilo has become their voice for the lost boys of Utah in “Exit 27.” They will be heard.
Wednesday January 25th at 3 p.m. and Thursday, January 26 at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Civic Center Stoner Theatre. This is a free-ticketed event for registered festival attendees only. Tickets can be acquired at the festival eventbrite page.