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Saturday, 01 September 2012 23:26

'Elephant' rocks

Written by Andrea Braun
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The Details

Director Deanna Jent reprises one of her best-known productions in this version of Going to See the Elephant by Karen Hensel and Elana Kent. In the theatre community, the now-defunct but highly respected Orange Girls Company offered this play, director and leading lady, Nancy Lewis, as its first outing and it won several Kevin Kline Awards, including one for Lewis at “Maw,” surprising almost everyone.

It made the Orange Girls reputation as an artistic force to be reckoned with and all associated with it benefited from their attachment to a show that has become a kind of St. Louis legend.

But I didn’t see it. I don’t remember why—I was even on the board of directors of the Orange Girls for its last two years—but I missed its maiden effort. Oops. Maybe that’s an advantage in a way; however, because I’m not burdened by the onus of comparison. So what follows is a discussion of the 2012 season opener at Mustard Seed on its merits alone. And it has much to recommend it.

First, an observation about Jent: I’ve seen a lot of her work in the past, but this is the first time I noticed how much she focuses on faces. She even adapted and directed a play called Till We Have Faces a couple of seasons back, so her technique isn’t exactly a surprise in itself, but something of a revelation in its precision. Since the script is filled with long monologues for each character, this kind of concentration among the cast is key to audience engagement.

And the audience I was among on opening night was rapt. The room was as silent here as for any show I’ve seen in quite a while during these stories, though they can drag a bit (I noticed this especially when neighbor girl Etta [Jessica Haley] tells of living as a captive with the Cheyenne). Still, when Sarah (Emily Baker), Maw’s daughter-in-law, and Mrs. Helene Nichols (Suki Peters), an unwilling guest, are giving their heart-wrenching accounts of losing their children to the harsh life in rural Kansas in the 1870s, I was riveted. These two women have quite different feelings about the land and their losses which provide a good deal of the tension in the plot. Maw is also a constant thorn in everyone’s side as she goes on about the fall of the Confederacy which she believes ruined her Southern family, and this is exacerbated by the fact that her son went to war as a “damn Yankee.” She’s so stubborn that, while the whole family lives in one room, Maw doesn’t speak to him at all.

It’s clear that one of the major points to the story is the collision of different attitudes toward similar experiences. When we meet Maw, she’s looking at an atlas her patient gave her, the audible but invisible Mr. Nichols who is ailing inside her cabin and under her care. She’s talking about her dream of visiting faraway places and her regret that she won’t get to. But she still plans to leave the farm once Sarah’s fourth baby is born. Sarah’s husband and other two (living) children have gone to town to get supplies for the family’s July 4 celebration the next day. (It does seem odd that he’d go off with a 4-year-old and a toddler in such dangerous country, but it’s explained that Sarah didn’t want them around a contagious patient.) Anyway, Sarah is doing laundry and listening to Maw go on about becoming a military nurse in Colorado and maybe even finding a husband. She’s kidding about that, but she does mean to move on with her own life and not tend to her children and grandchildren any longer. Sarah is frightened, but “It’s time,” Maw insists.

Meantime, Etta has arrived. She’s a jumpy little thing due to her 1 ½ years captivity by the Cheyenne, but her account of the experience reveals a few surprises. She has material for a new dress and she hopes to marry—once she tells her intended, that is. She was rescued by Custer’s Army, and his Colorado command is also where Maw plans to join the troops, so that may be indicating something about making plans, because we all know how the General ended up. When Mrs. Nichols finally appears, she is a much more refined lady than these rough frontier women, and she disdains them and even their food. She’s a vegetarian and self-proclaimed follower of Thoreau. She and her husband came from New York to Kansas to join a community of what sounds like the eastern Transcendentalist commune, Brook Farm, but things didn’t work out as they expected.

The interactions, collisions, and reactions of these women form the basis of what we see, and chemistry among them is absolutely essential to it all working. Fortunately, they have it. Maw is hard to like but we can warm up to her more easily because Sarah loves her. Sarah is tough too, and she is protective of Etta while disdainful of Mrs. Nichols (now “Helene” to everyone) until they share a moment begun in bonding over mutual tragedy but ending in a philosophical discussion of God and nature, revealing Sarah as the real naturalist and Helene as just a pretender. But neither is as firm in her convictions as Maw who believes, no matter what happens, it is all God’s will, at least in a “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” kind of way.

The set and lights are compelling (Daniel Lanier, Michael Sullivan), costumes are appropriate (Jane Sullivan) and Zoe Sullivan’s sound choices are particularly apt. What we find when we “go see the elephant” is a play flawed by talkiness (though to be fair, a wolf pack adds some exciting action) and redeemed by performances. Haley starts slowly, but warms up quickly; Peters is a delightful surprise; Lewis is impressive as always; yet among the four, I have to give the acting edge to Baker. I can’t remember the last time I was so enthralled by a character. I’m aware I often have a tendency to focus on the material because it’s hard to make a good play from a weak script. But this time, I can see the trees for the forest, and enthusiastically recommend you consider enjoying this engaging evening of theatre.

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