CASTLE DALE, Emery County — It's a simple story woven from the histories of the people who founded this little community with heart, faith and tears.
It's a tale that recounts the stories of Jesus Christ from the Book of Mormon — the bedrock scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — including the Nativity, the Crucifixion and Samuel the Lamanite preaching from the wall.
And it's told in an authentic rustic setting with tents, tumbleweeds and dugouts carved into the hillside against a spectacular backdrop of natural beauty in an amphitheater scoped out by the pageant's originator, Montell Seeley, in 1978.
It's a story of courage and loss told on horseback by a grandfather to his grandson after the youngster asks about the Mormons who followed President Brigham Young's counsel to head to the central Utah area of Castle Valley and tame the rugged land.
One couple loses their baby son to a fever. Another family loses their mother, leaving the bishop to take in the children. One young couple has to choose between staying safe at home to marry in the temple or head out to homestead in the unknown Utah wilderness.
JaeCee Ewell plays the part of Neva, the girl trying to decide whether to follow her fiancee, Abe, to Castle Valley or stand fast for her dream of eternal marriage. She's been in the pageant every year it's been staged since she was a baby, playing almost all of the female roles along the way.
This role made the 17-year-old Emery High School senior seriously ponder temple marriage.
"Right now, I've been thinking about temple marriage a lot," she said.
Kove Johansen, a 9-year-old who plays a young American Indian boy, said he likes being in the pageant even though it takes a lot of time and the cast rehearses even if it's raining.
He also has been in the show since he was a baby.
Most of the tiny community of Castle Dale has been involved for years, said Catherine Seeley. Her husband wrote the pageant and worked tirelessly to involve others until his death on a pioneer trek re-enactment in August 2008.
Co-director Julie Johansen said the pageant today draws an average crowd of 3,500-4,000 each night.
Since the early 1990s, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Activities Committee stepped in to fund and oversee the production, the script has been recorded and actors are "only" required to make the motions and be in the right places throughout the story.
The songs are largely well-known hymns with a couple of simple additions written by Seeley.
But it still requires dedication and strict attention to detail, discovering coal, scuffling over water rights and "slipping and sliding" in the Castle Valley mud.
"We've been rehearsing since the 17th of June," said Johansen, pausing to watch cast members take their places for notes.
"Hurry, you gotta hurry," said Brad Giles, president of the pageant as the cast magically appeared from behind the cabins and rocks. "Hurry, hurry, hurry!"
"We need to change her hair," he said to Ron Sanders, also a director of the cast that includes a cow, a burro, lots of horses and small children, some as young as 16 months.
The story of Wink and Anna in the pageant is based on Seeley's grandparents, who had to decide whether to homestead before or after their baby was born. They ultimately chose to make the journey, bringing along a midwife (who sings a cheery midwife song).
The story of Joe and Tilda is based on settlers Joseph and Matilda Curtis Boulden. Their baby died above Upper Joe's Valley and was later reburied in Castle Valley.
Seeley based the story of the reluctant fiancee on two couples he knew where the husband was willing to come to Castle Valley but the wife didn't want to leave the comforts of the Sanpete Valley. Niels Peter Miller and his wife, Ellen, were one of the couples. Miller made his wife a dugout with a mud and log roof, which was a cut above many at the time. Upon their arrival in the valley, she said, "Has it now come to this that I have to live underground?"
That line, along with other original lines gleaned from family histories and journals, remains in the script.
It's a long ways (250 miles round trip from American Fork), but it makes for a sweet journey into the past and the lives of pioneers in an area lesser known.
If you go ...
What: Castle Valley Pageant
Where: 4785 North Desbee Dove Road, Castle Dale, Emery County (Signs on Highway 10 will direct visitors to the pageant site (not locatable by GPS), approximately eight miles outside of town
When: 8:30-10:00 p.m., Aug. 2-4, 7-11 (A mutton fry is served at the rodeo grounds starting at 5 p.m., with pioneer village activities in the pageant arena from 6:15-8:15). The pageant is performed only on even-numbered years.
Cost: free admission and parking (free shuttle between Emery County Fairgrounds and pageant)
For lodging information: Call Mark Justice at 435-687-2403
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.
Email: [email protected]