Story: The residents of sparsely populated Osbourne County, Kansas are preparing for an Independence Day celebration in 1871. At Maw Wheeler’s household, though, there are more immediate concerns. On a homestead where the primary crops are boredom and loneliness, Maw’s homespun wisdom and practical talents have a major influence on her hard-working daughter-in-law Sarah, who is pregnant with her fourth child and already has witnessed the death of a daughter.
The Wheelers are caring for an Eastern couple, avid followers of Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy of independence and respect for nature, who lost their own son to disease while traveling west in search of a place to call their own. With her husband confined to the cabin by his serious condition, Helene Nichols butts heads with Maw over when the Nichols will continue their journey to Abilene.
Etta, a timid young woman whose family members are the closest neighbors to the Wheelers, visits as well, debating a proposal of marriage from a man named George. While Maw vigilantly protects her property from the constant fear of wolves and hostile natives, she talks of leaving in search of adventures, of “going to see the elephant” of unknown excitement and exploration beyond the horizon.
Highlights: Mustard Seed Theatre’s artistic director Deanna Jent opens the company’s 2012-13 season with a beautifully rendered reprisal of the initial offering she directed several years ago for the late and lamented troupe known as The Orange Girls. Also returning in this performance is Nancy Lewis, who won a Kevin Kline Award for her portrayal of the indomitable Maw in that earlier presentation.
Other Info: A collaborative effort by six women named Karen Hensel, Patti Johns, Elana Kent, Sylvia Meredith, Elizabeth Lloyd Shaw and Laura Toffenetti, this two-act drama takes its title from a stock phrase in 19th century America. People trekking westward to the new frontier would remark they were “going to see the elephant,” to experience the unknown.
Jent’s quartet of performers carefully calibrates the overwhelming sense of isolation that settlers experienced while searching for new and better lives on the vast American frontier in the 19th century. They also convey the dedication to ever-present hard work and devotion to family that guides these four women to seek out their own destinies.
Zoe Sullivan’s subtle sound design epitomizes this life, from the hoedown chords of bluegrass that permeate the theater before the show to the soft chirping of crickets that presage the awful howling of wolves preying on Maw’s livestock. In tandem with Jane Sullivan’s costumes, which contrast Etta’s poverty with the handsome attire of the once well-to-do Helene, Michael Sullivan’s evocative lighting and the rough-hewn set designed by Daniel Lanier and carefully selected props from Meg Brinkley, the stage looks and sounds like that desolate frontier.
The script allows for a natural pairing off of characters throughout its two acts to better shape their individual stories. Director Jent and her performers shrewdly tap into those situations to personalize their individual roles and to faithfully articulate the hopes, fears and dreams of these hardy, 19th century pioneers.
Lewis is a commanding presence as Maw, bringing the woman’s fierce independence and drive for new adventures to the fore even as she copes heroically with the ever-present adversities brought by the hostile forces of nature as well as the failings of her own wastrel husband and disappointing son. She is a proud Confederate daughter of Kentucky who carries her allegiance well past the Civil War even as she nurtures family and visitors alike.
Emily Baker fills Sarah with loads of common sense, discipline and love, faithful to her mother-in-law even if she doesn’t understand Maw’s desire to search for something else, as Sarah is content with her modest lot. Suki Peters offers a finely etched contrast to the Wheelers as the urbane, sophisticated and educated Helene, who nonetheless was willing to leave the niceties of upper society behind as she and her family sought to forge a new identity out West.
As Etta, Jessica Haley shows us the fragile young woman’s delicate hold on reality, the mystery of which is peeled away under Helene’s probing interrogation. Jesse Russell adds to the play’s effect by providing the voice of the unseen Mr. Nichols.
Going to See the Elephant is a richly textured drama that presents a treasure trove of possibilities for a company willing to invest in its potential, something Mustard Seed does admirably in this rendition.
Play: Going to See the Elephant
Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne University Black Box Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: September 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 16
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb