A new local theater company called Orange Girls focuses on drama by and about women. But with their inaugural offering, Going to See the Elephant, the Orange Girls give St. Louis a rich, absorbing evening that knows no gender -- and one of the most engrossing theater experiences in recent memory.
Set in the front yard of a sod house on the empty Kansas prairie in 1870, the play captures a moment in time during the American migration west. Not a lot happens here, yet large doses of theatricality and suspense have been created from minutiae.
If the script, which was first staged in Los Angeles in 1982, possess a different texture from more conventional dramas, perhaps that's because it was not written in a conventional manner. Most plays have a sole author. Going to See the Elephant was assembled as a group effort by the original director and actresses. One can almost imagine those women scouring history books and poring over old newspapers in search of specific accounts about the hardships of prairie life. The actresses wrote juicy roles for themselves, sustained by countless specific details.
Nancy Lewis anchors the evening as Maw, a savvy old medicine woman whose years have elevated her into a kind of tall-grass oracle. Maw is the play's name-dropper. Her forebears traveled west through the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone; she admires Queen Victoria. Maw may be the most curious one of the bunch. Kansas is not the end of the line for her. She's hoping to move on to Colorado and new adventures.
With a husband and two children to care for -- not to mention the milking and the scrubbing and the cooking -- Maw's daughter-in-law, Sara, doesn't have time for yearnings. When a stranger brings a mirror into her home, Sara lacks the courage to even look into it. (The discussion about a mirror -- something we take for granted today -- is indicative of the play's attention to time and place.) Meghan Maguire portrays Sara in a no-nonsense manner that even manages to elude comment. By contrast, young Etta, who lives five miles away, doesn't do much work at all. This otherworldly waif is free to skip about the prairie, seemingly oblivious to dangers that might paralyze others with fear. With close-cropped hair, bare feet and a perpetually happy glaze in her eyes, Brooke Edwards makes Etta a memorable creation.
But it's Mrs. Nichols, the New Yorker who came to Kansas with her husband in search of a utopian community only to discover they'd been bilked, who provides the play with its conflicts. The other three women know -- or at least don't ask -- why they're there. "We're the trespassers," Sara concedes. But Mrs. Nichols, whose admiration for Thoreau has betrayed her, finds the place "a nightmare land" and wants out. Michelle Hand brings a ferocious intensity to Mrs. Nichols.
All four performances are in such harmony, there's a sense here that director (and Riverfront Times theater critic) Deanna Jent is the fifth actress, who just happens to be offstage. Or, perhaps, that the four actresses were directors in absentia. Either way, seamlessness pervades the evening. As the play reaches its climax, it begins to unravel just a bit -- perhaps because the focus of attention turns to an offstage character we've not met and care little about. But even here, the production is of such high caliber that the sheer momentum of the piece holds it together.
Midway through Act One, in one of the many jarringly perceptive lines that permeate this text, Mrs. Nichols says, "I didn't know that one tool could make the difference between success and failure, between life and death." Perhaps Going to See the Elephant delivers such riveting theater because, despite the fact that death is always hovering about just offstage, over that next rise or inside the cabin, life is happening onstage. Here, life takes many forms. It might be the new child in Sara's belly, or it might be a still-young nation recovering from a bloody war. But life abides.
This is an auspicious debut for Orange Girls.