Diantha Farr Clayton is not likely to be listed in any encyclopedia or Who's Who anywhere.
As the fourth wife of a Mormon pioneer polygamist, she died in her early 20's while giving birth, and her grandfather's family history book lists nothing more than her birth date, whom she married and the fact that she didn't like the smell of homemade soap.As actress Barta Heiner read the text, it enraged her sense of equality that a person's life could be reduced to a word or two. She later selected Diantha as the subject for her one-woman show as a conclusion to her MFA program at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.
Now a Brigham Young University assistant drama professor, Heiner will bring the pioneer to life Oct. 10 through 13 at 7:30 p.m. on the BYU Pardoe Theatre stage with "Diantha." Tickets are available through the drama ticket office, 378-7447.
From Heiner's initial search for Diantha, she found a little about Diantha directly - a poem, a letter, a little history. But meticulous research at libraries, from Daughters of Utah Pioneer pamphlets, and from diaries and journals, gave her a picture of where Diantha would have been at certain times of her life.
It also enlarged her image of pioneer life, and the play creates a montage based on the lives of many women as a tribute to the spirit of the mid-1800s Mormon female pioneer.
What emerges from her presentation, she says, is a revelation of the dreams these women held. They were willing to cross the country to an unknown world to find a better life. Many knew they were as likely to fail as succeed. The value, says Heiner, was in having the dream.
Diantha actually reached the Salt Lake Valley, but Heiner has taken some literary license to have Diantha die during a devastating season at Winter Quarters.
"I found so much information that I could have created a three-hour show. I had to narrow the focus with pieces of Diantha's story from 1832 to 1848."
Heiner uses colloquialisms of the mid-19th century and pulls phrases directly from the records of other pioneer women. As Diantha talks, much of her action shows the daily rituals of pioneer life: breaking eggs for cornbread, washing dishes, wiping her face with a cloth, sitting by the fire.
Her script touches on many difficulties of early Mormon life, including religious persecution and the challenges of polygamy. At one point, Diantha poignantly talks about her desire to have been a first choice and not a "fourth consideration."
Heiner says her research gave her additional understanding of polygamy as practiced during Diantha's life.
"In the 19th century, single women didn't have acceptable ways to support themselves," she says. "Polygamy protected many of them and gave them homes they otherwise would not have had."
Heiner also says that with the right circumstances, polygamy was liberating. If a woman wanted to do something, she often had a support system.
"I read about two sister wives (married to the same husband) who enjoyed acting. One would perform in a play and the other would take care of the children. At the next play, their roles would switch. Other women taught all the children, others did the cooking and others studied for such fields as medicine."
Heiner says the genesis of much of her writing came from happenings in her own life at the time.
"One of my female cousins had just been raped and murdered, and I was concerned with the issue of protection. I began to see polygamy in a 100-year-old context as a form of shelter. At other times while I wrote, it seemed as if something tugged at my sleeve and encouraged me to go in specific directions."
Although Heiner made some necessary assumptions as she assembled her play, she thought she was getting to know Diantha quite well, a belief reinforced by a letter she found by Diantha's husband William Clayton (co-composer of the hymn "Come, Come Ye Saints"). His words reinforced what Heiner already thought about his wife.
She has portrayed Diantha to audiences with agendas ranging from support to hostility since its premiere in the late 1970's.
From the American Conservatory Theatre - then a hot bed of bitterness about blacks and the LDS priesthood - came perhaps her most difficult audience. But even there, her performance yielded some strong personal identifications.
"The Jewish students really recognized the suffering," she says, "and one person told me it had helped him find God."
In another California performance, actor Henry Groener (whose credits include the television series "Dear John") told her it reminded him of why he had chosen to go into theater.
The LDS audience is understandably sympathetic toward Diantha's trials, says Heiner, and for converts without a pioneer background, "it helps give them perspective on the roots of their faith."
Heiner looks forward to her performance, because although she spends most of her time helping students hone their theatrical talents, she sees herself primarily as an actress.
"In class, I try not to act for the student," she says. "They need to find the necessary acting tools within themselves, and I don't want to either intimidate them or tempt them to try copying me.
"At the same time, though, I think it's important that they realize that their teachers can act - and it provides me with tremendous personal satisfaction."
For three years, Heiner acted at the Denver Center Theatre and toured the country with the Tony-nominated play "Quilters." She also taught at the National Theatre Conservatory at Denver before returning to BYU, where she had received her bachelor's degree and twice received "best actress" accolades from the College of Fine Arts and Communications.