Thursday, September 6, 2012

GOING TO SEE THE ELEPHANT • Mustard Seed Theatre

The title of this 1982 play that ushers in the sixth season of Mustard Seed Theatre, was an American idiom that indicated overwhelming emotion, and according to Belle "Maw" Wheeler (Nancy Lewis), it means going over the hill to see what's on the other side -- checking out the "unknown".

When the lights come up on Daniel Lanier's beautifully rustic set, we're drawn into Osbourne County, Kansas on July 3rd, 1870.  Preparations are underway for an Independence Day celebration the next day, and while Sara (Emily Baker) does the laundry and unsuccessfully tries to get milk from their cow Jezebel, Maw Wheeler, Sara's mother-in-law, is poring over a book that depicts the maps of the world.  Maw is restless, and is thinking about heading out to Colorado, once her daughter-in-law's baby is born.  But there's not too much time to think or talk about all that -- there's work to be done.  It seems that these hard-wrought frontier women always have work to do.  One of their nearest neighbors, Etta (Jessica Haley), ventures alone to visit them and see how the party planning is going.  Between the wild animals and the sometimes hostile natives, a young woman walking so far alone is a dangerous proposition in these parts, but Etta's lonely and needs the company.

Nancy Lewis (Belle "Maw" Wheeler)
and Emily Baker (Sara Wheeler).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Although fond of and protective of Etta, the Wheelers don't have much time to entertain her either.  In addition to the July 4th party, they are also hosting Mr. Nichols (who is heard but never seen), and his wife Mrs. Helene Nichols (Suki Peters).  The Nichols are from "the city" up North but moved out West and sank their savings into some land that they had high hopes of making their own, but things didn't work out that way.  The trek was unforgiving, and Helene's husband became ill along the way.  They headed to Maw Wheeler's due to her reputation as a gifted woman with some solid medical knowledge.  Helene is itching to keep moving, but Maw insists that her husband is still too ill.  Throughout the course of the play, the back-stories of each woman are slowly revealed through engaging interactions and monologues.  Although Helene initially seems vastly different from Sara, we learn about the tragic losses of their children, and that even the "innocent", Etta, has already had some horrific experiences of her own.  Going to See the Elephant takes a thoughtful look at the cost of dreaming about going over the hill to see if the grass is greener, and the cost of firmly planting your feet and accepting your current surroundings in a harsh land, where fear always seems to lay just beneath the surface, and tears are a luxury.

Suki Peters (Mrs. Helene Nichols), Emily Baker (Sara Wheeler),
Jessica Haley (Etta Bailey), Nancy Lewis (Belle "Maw" Wheeler)
Photo credit: John Lamb
This play draws you in with wonderfully compelling performances.  Emily Baker as Sara sets the tone with her lovely singing of songs from back in the day.  She fills Sara with compassion and sound judgement, but she would rather just get the work done instead of dreaming of far-off places.  Nancy Lewis, reprising her Kevin Kline award winning role of Belle "Maw" Wheeler, in a production of the sadly now defunct Orange Girls Theatre, injects Maw with raw guts and wisdom, still not considering herself beyond the capability of steering her own life by the horns.  She's tough as nails (and can handle a double barrel shotgun when roaming wolves approach), stubborn as a mule, but a dreamer, full of hope and curiosity.  Suki Peters' story as Mrs. Helene Nichols takes a little longer to unfold, but once it does, she keeps you on the edge of your seat with surprises of unseen grit of her own.  Jessica Haley's Etta Bailey is the youngest, and most breakable, but again, hearing her story makes you realize there's more sustainability there that meets the eye.

Nancy Lewis (Belle "Maw" Wheeler)
and Suki Peters (Mrs. Helene Nichols).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The costumes courtesy of Jane Sullivan and provocative lighting design by Michael Sullivan handsomely compliment the feel of the play.  Zoe Sullivan's sound design also adds much to the mood, from the night-time sound of crickets to the threatening howls of passing wolves.

All of these women have had to shoulder their fair share of heartache dished out by their often cruel surroundings, and on the way home from seeing this play, I didn't automatically turn the ipod on.  That doesn't happen often.  It's like I wanted it all to sink in a bit.  It's nice when that happens.  Go See the Elephant for yourself, though!  It's playing until the 16th.


Written by Karen Hensel and Elana Kent
Directed by Deanna Jent 
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through September 16 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm

Emily Baker (Sara Wheeler), Jessica Haley (Etta Bailey), Nancy Lewis (Belle "Maw" Wheeler) and Suki Peters (Mrs. Helene Nichols).

Scenic design by Daniel Lanier; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; sound design by Zoe Sullivan; dialect coach, Richard Lewis; stage manager, Patricia Duffin.

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