The house was too quiet, and six-year-old Talia Pura was terrified to go inside. She paced back and forth on the sidewalk crying, convinced that Jesus had taken her mother to heaven without her. “My biggest fear when I was a small child was that God had changed his mind, and I was no longer a born-again Christian,” said the playwright. She’d been saved in the Mennonite religion a year earlier, but already her faith struck her as potentially inconsistent. “Unless you have that brand-new born-again smell — if you don’t feel the euphoria of Jesus living in your heart at every moment — you could start doubting that he’s still there.”
It was this long-ago scene, and countless others like it, that Pura, now fifty-three, thought of when she first heard about the case of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub in June 2001. Yates’ motive was an effort to outsmart the devil by sending her children to heaven before they could go to hell. Pura wrote a play based on Yates, Demons of the Mind, that premiered at Canada’s Winnipeg Fringe Festival in 2008. She was intrigued by Yates’ diagnosis of postpartum psychosis and documented history of mental illness, and how they dovetailed with her extreme religious delusions — because Pura could, on some level, relate. Though Pura fictionalized many elements of the story, and she brings in a visual metaphor for mental illness in the form of aerial dance, Yates’ crimes are easily recognizable in the play and still just as difficult to comprehend.
She revives Demons of the Mind for a run at Warehouse 21, under the auspices of the Blue Raven Theatre company, opening at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18.
In Demons, Pura wants the audience to examine the nature of evil and how they judge victims and perpetrators. “The lines are not as clear-cut as we might want them to be,” she said. “I want them to look at this from all angles, and I want them to have a hard time coming to their own conclusion about whether this woman deserved the death penalty — or whether she should be looked at as a victim herself.”
Pura was an actor and playwright in Winnipeg for many years before moving to Santa Fe in 2015 with her husband, William Pura, a composer who wrote the original score for Demons of the Mind. She plays Marie (the Yates character), and Brent Black portrays her lawyer, James Campbell. (Black, a Broadway actor, cycled through a variety of roles in Mamma Mia!, the ABBA musical, from 2001 to 2015.) In some instances, the lawyer reads letters written to Marie in the voice of Pastor Jonathan, a charismatic fire-and-brimstone-style preacher who repeatedly tells Marie that she is a sinner.
“There is none that is righteous, no not one …” one of the letters says. “Modern mother worldly, very, very lazy. Her children drive her crazy. Modern mother worldly, cast into hell. Now what becomes of the children of such a Jezebel?”
The play is set in a prison cell with few frills, except for the blue silks that Pura uses to express Marie’s inner turmoil. When Demons of the Mind premiered 11 years ago, aerial dance was still a new skill for Pura, who originated the role of Marie, but now she moves confidently several feet above the stage. She acknowledged that she might seem a little old for the role, given that Yates was in her late thirties when she committed her crimes. But Pura is roughly the same age as Yates is now, potentially creating an interesting symmetry to her performance.
In the period between the play’s premiere and its revival, Pura’s understanding of Yates’ religious faith has expanded. “Now that I live in the U.S. and I see some of the results of Christian-right religious extremism, it feels more relevant to me than ever,” she said. “As a child growing up in a Mennonite community, we felt like we were the center of the universe, and we were the ones going to heaven. I had no idea that there was a whole portion of the Southern U.S. that believed what I believed. I had no idea that evangelical Christians existed. I didn’t know about Texas. Our world was not that big.”
In 2002, Yates faced the death penalty and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. She was convicted of capital murder in the death of three of her children and sentenced to life in prison. However, the conviction was overturned in a second trial because a prosecution witness gave faulty testimony about Yates’ motives. In 2006, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and now lives in the Kerrville State Hospital in Texas.
For Pura, the most confounding aspect of the case was the standard for a successful insanity defense under Texas law. In order for Yates to be considered insane, she would have had to believe she was doing the right thing by killing her children. Yates did know that it was wrong in the sense that it was illegal, but she still thought she was doing the right thing by resisting the devil and trying to follow God’s wishes.
For her play, Pura concentrated on the darkly confusing nuances of “right” and “wrong” in the context of an all-or-nothing religious faith that leads to no easy conclusions.
“If you say that you did this terrible thing because the devil told you to do it, then you are sane, because you know in your belief system that the devil will only tell you to do bad things,” she said. “You have to say, ‘Get behind me, Satan,’ and pray to God to overcome what he’s telling you. Marie found a workaround for Satan’s orders by killing her children and sending them to heaven before they could go to hell. But if you say that God told you to do this evil deed, then you must be insane, because in your belief system, God would never tell you to do something evil.” ◀
▼ Blue Raven Theatre Company presents Demons of the Mind, written and directed by Talia Pura
▼ 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18, with performances through April 28; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays
▼ Warehouse 21, 1614 Paseo de Peralta, 505-988-1579, blueraventheatre.com
▼ $25 general admission; $22 senior; $15 youth, brownpapertickets.com