Hancock County

“Sometimes hurt and the will of the Lord do travel the same road,” says Brigham Young in Tim Slover’s* new “Hancock County.” Brother Brigham is a minor figure in the play, but that statement reverberates throughout it as a reminder that no matter how much we might want something, God usually has more information on the matter than we do.

“Hancock County” sets up a familiar theatrical and cinematic situation: the legal trial of a bad guy everyone wants to see punished. It’s the real-life 1845 trial of five men accused of conspiring to kill Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith. (No one knew which of the 100 mobbers actually fired the bullets that killed him, so “conspiracy to murder” was the best the state of Illinois could do.)

It sets up a fine array of historical characters, too: a menacing newspaper owner (Robert Gibbs) among the defendants; a disgraced former attorney general (Marvin Payne) trying to regain some credibility by prosecuting the case; a deviously pious snake in the grass (R. Jeremy Selim) as defense attorney; a conflicted judge (Bob Nelson); a lapsed Mormon (Stephanie Foster Breinholt) too nervous to testify; her battered-wife relative (Anna McKeown); and, lurking along the sidelines weighing sadness with frustration, Brigham Young (J. Scott Bronson).

After setting up this tantalizing blend of situations and characters, though, Slover must stick to historical fact, which does not allow for as much justice as the viewer will want to see. It’s a difficult dilemma for a playwright: You want the action to be satisfying, but you don’t want to betray history. To an extent, though, the frustration felt by a sympathetic audience is part of the point; we feel a bit of what Brigham and the Saints felt, and the cast, directed by Tim Threlfall, gives it their all in conveying the bittersweet emotions of the day.

Like Slover’s “Joyful Noise,” seen and loved by thousands a few years ago, “Hancock County” moves swiftly from one scene to another, using and re-using minimal set pieces and props. It also employs the occasional dose of dry humor, such as when the prosecuting attorney says he hopes he isn’t arrested for contempt of court, because “I don’t like my chances for surviving the night in Carthage Jail.”

The cast is top-notch on all sides, from Payne’s alcoholic attorney to Selim’s offensively smarmy defense lawyer; from Bronson’s reluctant but powerful prophet to Breinholt’s cowering witness. It is a clear, rich drama that is satisfying even when it doesn’t go the way we want it to.

Should you go? Whether LDS Church history is your thing or not, “Hancock County” is an engrossing depiction of it.

*Tim Slover was pressured to resign from BYU after having an affair with a fellow professor’s wife, an affair with a student, and at least one attempted affair with a student that was rebuffed and reported. The BYU Theatre Department shamefully kept all of this quiet and allowed false alternate explanations for Slover’s departure to spread. Slover never suffered professional consequences for his actions and continued to teach at the university level for many years.  

[ I got so tired of the whining I hear when I go to one of the “preview” performances that, starting with this show, I waited until the official opening night. This meant the review couldn’t appear in the paper until halfway through the run, but oh well. ]