Arts & Culture » Theater

Going to See the Elephant: Hard-luck tale from the past offers modern-day lessons



It's hard to imagine the very real isolation that existed here in the Midwest a mere 150 years ago. A family could sit on its homestead and see nothing and no one for miles in every direction, with no phone lines, no air travel and (God forbid!) no wi-fi to connect them. Not only did the world seem bigger and lonelier then, it was also more mysterious.

As Karen Hensel and Elana Kent's Going to See the Elephant demonstrates, how people choose to address that unknown says a lot about them.

The play opens on a Kansas prairie in 1870, with two women emerging from a small, humble house. Maw (Nancy Lewis) gleefully, restlessly explores an atlas while her daughter-in-law, Sara (Emily Baker), sings contentedly and launders an endless supply of dirty clothing. Although Maw's gray hair hints at her years, she won't reveal her age; what she does reveal, however, is a plan to travel to Colorado to work as a nurse before picking up and moving aimlessly on again.

Life for Maw is about "going to see the elephant — going to see what's over the next hill, find out what's out there." She responds to Sara's horror at the idea of such an elderly woman traveling alone and starting over with bold indignation: "Don't bury me so quick!"

Maw's reluctance to meekly accept the end of life is in direct contrast with young Sara's plans to do exactly that. Having lost her firstborn child while traveling from "Missourah" to Kansas, Sara is already world-weary or, as Maw explains, her "dreams are awful small."

Etta (Jessica Haley), a wistful young neighbor girl with wild hair, has recently returned from the clutches of the Cheyenne Indians and returned home to find her mother dead. Overcome with grief, Etta attempts to distract herself by planning a wedding, having decided to marry the soldier who rescued her from her captors.

Meanwhile, the women's lives are rattled with the arrival of Mrs. Helene Nichols (Suki Peters), the wealthy vegetarian from New York who traveled southwest with her husband and a group of other like-minded transcendentalists seeking a simpler life. Instead, the naïve Yankees learned firsthand several simple truths of travel, such as the fatal power of a broken plow and the vastness of the open prairie.

The only male presence in the play is the voice of Mr. Nichols (Jesse Russell) who is heard but never seen. The brilliant performances from all four women shine under Deanna Jent's direction, elevated by the bold wisdom in Lewis' portrayal of Maw and drenched in the ever-present strength and sorrow as the characters deal with death and disappointment.

Eventually the women's battle against the world turns to infighting among themselves — arguments over chicken soup, chores and their loyalaties to one another — and Mrs. Nichols decides to leave, accepting that the journey will likely kill her ill husband. This choice leads to a philosophical brawl, where God's will faces off against reality, Thoreau's philosophy of simple living and the cynicism and sorrow inspired by the loss of a child. Blaming the death of her own son on Kansas and her husband's insistence on traveling there, Mrs. Nichols, as Maw observes, is "so busy trying to get back to civilization, [she's] not even acting civilized."

The women have all striven for the unknown, where the grass appears greener but rarely is. Deeply affected by the journey, the characters are never sated by the destination. Going to See the Elephant not only offers a moving glimpse into the reality of late nineteenth century prairie life, it illuminates the timeless notion of longing for what could have been and what can still be.

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