New Play, Hancock County, is BYU’s Entry in Cultural Olympiad
Anyone interested in courtroom drama, murder mysteries, American history, or a riveting story with fascinating characters should mark their calendars to see Utah writer Tim Slover’s new play, Hancock County, BYU’s theatrical entry in the 2002 Cultural Olympiad.
The University’s College of Fine Arts commissioned Slover to write the play, awarding him a Discovery Grant funded by artist and arts promoter Don Oscarson.
Hancock County is Slover’s first play at BYU since his phenomenally successful Joyful Noise in 1998, which went on to an off-Broadway run, a national publication by the Samuel French Co., and several regional productions in the US and Canada.
Hancock County dramatizes the events surrounding the 1845 court trial of the accused assassins of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, and his brother, Hyrum. “But it’s not just about or for Mormons,” Slover says. “Two of the seven characters are Mormons: a key witness, Eliza Graham, and Brigham Young; the rest are other folks working out their own problems. The play explores issues relevant to everyone.
“It’s really about what it means to be an American in 2002. Hancock County, though a place in Illinois, could be anywhere today where there are tensions between competing interests. Plus, for Mormons, this a slice of history many don’t know about. Of course, the fact that the central event of the play is a murder trial carries with it inherent drama.”
Slover is known as a skilled craftsman of historical drama. He has brought to life on stage and screen historical characters as diverse as William Shakespeare, James Madison, and George Frederick Handel. His current play turns the spotlight on 19th Century frontier America and its reaction to the Mormons. “What interests me is what really happened and what effect it had on human lives. All the characters in Hancock County really lived, and I feel that gives me a certain responsibility to stay true to them and their lives. The speculative parts of the play are all within the parameters of fact. And the facts are amazing.”
Slover is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. He won the Grand Prize in the Writers Digest 65th Annual Writing Competition for his play, March Tale. His screenplay A More Perfect Union, which aired nationally on PBS, garnered the prestigious Freedoms Foundation Medal.BYU Theatre professor and veteran director Tim Threlfall is bringing the play to life.
“Tim is the perfect director for this play,” Slover says. “He brings a wealth of experience. He is the principle director at Tuacahn Center for the Performing Arts, and is a past artistic director of Civic Light Opera in Seattle and the Provo Theatre Company.” Threlfall says Hancock County presents some staging challenges. “It’s very fast-paced and cinematic. It flows along like a movie, and that means the actors really have to be on their toes for entrances and exits.”
The seven men and women assembled for the play are a mix of professional and student actors. They include well-known actor, singer, composer, and writer Marvin Payne (www.marvinpayne.com). “Marvin is a triple-threat. Make that a quadruple-threat,” Slover says. “He does it all. Not only is he bringing to life brilliantly this crafty, dissipated lawyer, Josiah Lamborn, he’s also writing and performing the incidental music for the play. I’ve always wanted Marvin to work on a project of mine. I’m thrilled that it’s finally working out.”
Slover is equally enthusiastic about the other cast members. “It’s an all-star team, really,” he says. We’ve got SAG actors, one who has acted with a national touring company, another who won the Kennedy Center award for best college actress in the entire nation. They bring such talent and commitment to every rehearsal. The audience is in for a real treat.”
The set and lighting, by BYU professor and professional designer Rory Scanlon, are both calculated to bring the action of the play right into the audience. “They’ll feel as if they’re in the courtroom,” says Scanlon. Adds Slover, “We’re working for an intimate feel that should make everyone in the theatre feel as if the play is being performed especially for them.”
Hancock County opens at the Pardoe Theatre on the BYU campus Feb. 15 and plays Tuesdays through Saturdays until March 2. Curtain is 7:30 pm with a 2:00 pm matinee on Saturday, March 2. Tickets are $12. There are two half-price preview performances Feb. 13 and 14.
A PLACE IN ILLINOIS (Program Note)
When the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, and his brother Hyrum, were shot to death in Carthage Jail on a July evening in 1844, the dream that had built a haven for the Saints on the banks of the Mississippi River died with them.
It rapidly became clear that the Mormons would not be left in peace now; they would have to abandon Nauvoo and leave the country. However, before that exodus occurred, the governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, embarrassed by the slaying of state-protected prisoners, demanded a murder trial. But who should be charged? The killings had been executed by a mob, and it was impossible to determine which of the hundreds of rounds fired actually killed the Smiths. A grand jury held in October found sufficient grounds to charge five leading citizens, not with actually shooting the Smiths, but with conspiracy to commit murder. A trial date was set for the next May.
The chief players in that trial are the characters in this play. Leading the defense team was Orville Browning, who had been an ardent legal defender of Joseph Smith; now he would be defending his alleged murderers. The prosecuting attorney was Josiah Lamborn, disgraced former Attorney General, as skilled an advocate as Browning, though now given to drink. Judge for the trial would be Richard Young, a state Supreme Court Justice and candidate for governor. All these men were celebrities, a cast of stars assembled by the state and the defendants. Most prominent of the defendants was Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal newspaper that had called for the “extermination” of Joseph Smith and the forcible removal of the Mormons from the county.
In 1845, Brigham Young had not yet been sustained by his people as the President of their church, though he was its leader. Among his first leadership challenges was to determine what role, if any, the Church should play in the trial. The conflict between wanting to see his beloved prophet avenged and keeping his people safe must have been agonizing. There are tantalizing clues in the court transcripts about the personalities and relationships of Eliza Graham and Ann Fleming, both of whom testified at the trial. From those clues I have drawn their characters.
Why the title, Hancock County? My research for the play led me to the conclusion that it was a story about a place, a not unusual place in the America of either the 19th or 21st Centuries, where diverse cultures with potentially competing interests must try to coexist, if not harmonize, as each pursues its vision of American life. In Hancock County in the 1840s, the experiment failed. But the fear and intolerance which marked that failure might be instructive.
Writing this play has been a richly interactive experience for me, and I gratefully acknowledge all those who have helped me improve the script, including its talented director and cast, Cathy Biesinger and the cast of the original staged reading, Don Oscarson, and the authors Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, whose book, Carthage Conspiracy, was its initial inspiration. Thanks, too, to Chair Bob Nelson and Dean Newell Dayley for bringing this project to fruition.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.