Hancock County, performed last week by Westminster College in Salt Lake City, was a riveting evening of theater. The thing is, though, that no matter who performs it, or how well, that level of interest is going to be the case, because of the inherent drama in the story and the skill of Slover’s writing. So even though Westminster’s production had its apparent flaws to detract from its strengths, the production still stood firmly on its feet. The passion of the actors also helped make the production not only a sturdy presence, but also allowed it at times to take flight.
But before I go full steam into the review, I should make a side note. The problem with my theater reviews is that I often attend closing night, so people can’t attend the show even if I have heartily recommended it. The good thing about Hancock County, however, is that it is part of the upcoming Saints On Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama which I’m currently editing for Zarahemla Books. So, although Westminster College’s production of it is finished, you can watch out for the play in Saints On Stage in the next several months.
Before I talk about the merits and the detractions of the production, however, I would like to mention my thoughts on the play and the playwright. Tim Slover is one of Mormonism’s most talented playwrights and Hancock County is my personal favorite of his work. Slover has a penchant for historical plays, his most famous play being Joyful Noise, about Handel’s composing of The Messiah. However, he has also has written plays on Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Butch Cassidy and Alexander Hamilton (not to mention the Emmy award winning film A More Perfect Union, about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution), so his love for history, and his talent in fashioning it into a riveting story, is plainly evident.
Hancock County is an extension of Slover’s historical tradition, this time narrowing in on his own Mormon roots. The play is about the murder trials of after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Governor Thomas Ford (often suspected of being part of the conspiracy himself) has pushed hard for a trial to redeem his image after Joseph and Hyrum’s martyrdom, and has assigned Josiah Lamborn as the prosecuting attorney. Lamborn is a hard drinking man whose image has been tarnished because he was caught accepting bribes on cases. Lamborn is also out to redeem himself. Seeking witnesses, most of whom are reluctant, he finally zeroes in on Eliza Graham, a woman who was once a Mormon, but is “not much in the Church these days,” for reasons that are disclosed in the play.
Rounding out the cast are Ann Fleming, Eliza’s “kin” whose abusive husband forces her to go against her conscience; Brigham Young, who has inherited the leadership of the Mormon Church and all the burdens that go with that mantle; Orville Browning the once friend and lawyer of Joseph Smith (he was also a close friend to Lincoln and a founder of the Republican party), but who is now the lawyer defending Joseph’s murderers; Thomas Sharp, the rabidly anti-Mormon newspaper editor for the infamous Warsaw Signal, who is on the list of the defendants; and Richard Young, the judge assigned to the case whose true desire for Justice and his plans to run for the Governor’s seat (with its accompanying PR campaign) are often at odds with each other.
It’s a dynamic group of individuals who all represent the interests of different, competing groups. But even more fascinating than the community dynamics are the individuals themselves. A bright red thread through many of Slover’s works is the theme of the sinner who yearns to be redeemed. In the play, which really centers around the non-Mormon Lamborn, we find Lamborn as a fallen man. His reputation is torn into ribbons, and his professional and personal future looks bleak. Your heart goes out to him as you see that, tainted as his actions made him, he is a lovable man, even a good man. Through the play, you see him trying to shed his flaws in trying to help the Mormons get Justice, only to find that it’s not Justice that any of them need… it’s Grace.
Near the end of the play, after finally getting his first real glimpse of the man whose murder he is trying to avenge, Lamborn has an epiphany which not only summarizes the play, but most of Slover’s work:
LAMBORN: … murder just ain’t murder if you happen to dislike the victim. Well, I want to tell you, you’re doing the right thing. Oh, not because of Joseph Smith’s morals or his militia–hell, you all got one of those. No. It’s his ideas. (Holds up the manuscript) I’ve been reading them. And they’re so dangerous and pernicious that you folks had no choice but to kill him. Just listen to what he wrote: “Hold out to the end, and we shall be resurrected and become like Gods.” As far as I can make out, this man believed that human beings can turn into gods. How’s that for blasphemy, members of the jury? But just try to grasp it for a moment if you can. All our meanness and our fear, and our little hatreds, and our weakness, all turned into glory. (He begins to laugh, a low chuckle.) Now imagine someone actually believing that.
The path to redemption is often a long, painful one. When we encounter our sins and fears and dark blots, it’s not easy… we all know that. And Slover handles this tender, often heart wrenching subject with a masterful, personal touch filled with both humor and pathos. Slover is at his best when he is handling characters whose lives are riddled with imperfection and sin, but who long for something more.
Now onto the actual production. It is only fair to note that my first exposure to this play was BYU’s masterful premiere several years back on the Pardoe Theater. That production had a superb cast, whose veteran actors inlcuded the likes of Marvin Payne, Bob Nelson, Scott Bronson and Stephanie Foster Breinholt, whose polish and professionalism was born from decades of acting experience. And BYU always seems to have a sizable budget, so the set and costumes were also top notch, even when they took a minimalistic approach.
So, in comparison, Westminster’s production could be seen as lacking, since its cast was chiefly made up young (some of them largely inexperienced) actors, and that it had an evidently shoe string budget (the costumes were the most glaring evidence of this). Lack of funds will take off at least some of the polish from any production (I know this since my own plays have had various kinds of budgets, from the lavish, to the penny pincher).
But to boil it down to that would be a disservice to the fine effort and passion that went into this production. Although Westmister’s cast was young, and in consequence some of the acting was either overwrought or underwrought, yet there was a heart and dedication in many of the performances that showed an inner fire that even BYU’s production couldn’t match. Of particular note were several excellent performances from actors, who with some more training, could truly become forces to be reckoned with.
The most polished performances came from Stephen Williams, who played Judge Young; and Gordon Dunn, who played Orville Borwning. Their experience and steady presence lifted the production to another level whenever they were on stage. However, the most dynamic performances (although at times not as professional) came from John Armstrong, playing Brigham Young; Connor Montgomery, playing Josiah Lamborne; Christie Porter, playing Eliza; and Pania Seeley, playing Ann Fleming.
Armstrong played one of the most interesting Brigham Young’s I’ve ever seen (which is saying a bit, since I’ve seen James Arrington’s masterful portrayal). Armstrong’s Brigham was sensitive, even emotional. He added a sincerity and a spirituality into the role that was born from a believer’s perspective. Although his performance was certainly not flawless, he really made you care for Brother Brigham.
Montgomery displayed some real fireworks in his portrayal of Lamborn. Although at times overwrought, yet he had a clear, powerful character. His passion and fire gave the play some of its most moving and funny moments. Certainly a joy to watch.
Christie Porter as Eliza Graham had an eye for detail and a talent for understatement. Although her vocal work could have used more variety and range, yet her performance was one of the most honest and nuanced. Her honest reactions are especially to be commended.
Pania Seeley had wonderful instincts. Expressive and emotional, she did some excellent work. However, her performance would have seemed more honest and less staged if she had pulled back bit and kept the same emotion and expression in a more contained manner.
Overall, although the production was flawed, like its Grace craving characters, the passion and power of the actors hearts and their love for performing made the play soar into moments of beauty and glory.