Last year at this time, the Midwest region of the United States was in the throes of severe flooding, forcing the cancellation of the 17th consecutive season for the "City of Joseph" pageant in Nauvoo.
"We're back!" affirmed R. Don Oscarson, the pageant author, executive producer and president."Last year, every bridge over the Mississippi River was closed for a 200-mile stretch from Burlington, Iowa, to St. Louis, Mo.," he remembered. "The ground water was so high in Nauvoo that the wells were filled within 6 inches from the top. There was standing water on the stage for `City of Joseph' because there was nowhere for it to run; the ground couldn't absorb any more."
By contrast, this year's pageant performances have gone as planned under mostly fair skies. The performance on Friday, July 29, was seen by about 7,000 spectators, the largest opening night attendance in the pageant's history. About that many attended the following night.
The pageant continued Aug. 2-6.
"So that we didn't forget last year's flood and how blessed we were this year, on Saturday night, during a major scene commemorating the gathering of the Saints here, a tremendous cloudburst broke over the audience and the cast, with torrential rain," Brother Oscarson said. "The cast continued right on with the performance, and the audience sat without moving during a three-minute downpour. No one left, and the show continued to its conclusion under fair skies."
In song and narrative, the pageant tells the story of Nauvoo during the six years from 1839 to the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
"The 350 cast members come primarily from the Midwest, but several families come from as far away as Virginia and the Far West," Brother Oscarson said. "This year, the youngest cast member is 7 weeks old and the oldest is 79 years."
Exemplifying the dedication of the cast members, he said, is Colette Skeen, a teen-ager from Charlottesville, Va., who told her family, "I'll give up Christmas if we can go back to Nauvoo and be in `The City of Joseph.' "
Brother Oscarson said a newspaper in Burlington, Iowa, The Hawkeye, carried an account of the Mike Stever family from Ogden, Utah. Family members gave up their tradition of pizza on Friday nights to put the money toward spending two weeks in Nauvoo for the pageant.
According to the newspaper story, Brother Stever's wife, Eloise, died last year, but he felt it was important to keep up the tradition of participating in the pageant.
"It's been hard returning this year without my wife," he was quoted as saying, "but I feel like she's here. She'll be up on the stage."
Brother Oscarson said that prior to her death, Sister Stever requested that at her memorial service one of her daughters sing "Bend of the River," the theme song of the pageant.
While in Nauvoo, the cast and crew become part of the community, Brother Oscarson said. About 170 stay at a campground managed by the RLDS Church. While there, they take on voluntary work projects to improve the camp.
"Also, we have a substantial number of our cast who stay at a Catholic girls academy right next to the stage area," he said. "They are very careful so as not to disturb the Catholic sisters who are there in a retreat."
Brother Oscarson said several young men and women in the cast are participating in a community project to paint a church in Nauvoo that is being renovated as a civic building.