Some stories are so downright weird that they can’t not be true. Those tales lend themselves to the theater, a primal world where dream-logic rules and rationalism need not apply. Playwrights thank their lucky stars; the rest of us scratch our heads, but can’t look away.
George Brant’s 2008 play Elephant’s Graveyard, Santa Paula Theater Center’s latest production, opens at the colliding of two worlds. The year is 1916, a small town in Erwin, Tenn., a town that “couldn’t remember its own name,” according to one of its folk. A town recently put on the map with the advent of the railroad. A muddy town, and maybe one that God is punishing. A quiet town where nothing much happens and the young men itch to run off to war. A town that hasn’t seen a circus in years. A town ripe for Big Mary.
Big Mary — 3 inches taller than P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo, the centerpiece of the Sparks World-Famous Shows Circus, who wraps the ballet girl in her trunk and leads the parade. Big Mary, who kills a man.
As a piece of theater, Elephant frames spectacle with spectacle. Brant drops us into the Big Top world of freaks and outcasts, then feeds us another oddity: a town so hungry for blood, or excitement, it exacts capital punishment on an animal.
How do you lynch an elephant? The punch line, delivered by the show’s sad-sack clown, might be, carefully. As audience members, we become voyeurs watching voyeurs, half-complicit. It’s a discomforting feeling.
Armed with a strong cast, directors David Ralphe and Fred Helsel have created an onstage world where these strange events seem credible. Justine Abbitt’s costumes and Mike Carnahan’s set design successfully evoke the allure of the circus amid the drab, workaday town. The ringleader’s jacket, the ballet girl’s (read: showgirl’s) get-ups and the elephant’s stool make particularly nice touches. The preacher’s (Anthony Stetson) mournful guitar interludes anchor us in the period while hinting at the events ahead.
Faced with a small stage, the directors opt to have the large ensemble mostly stay put during the opening scene, as each cast member steps forward to address the audience. This static approach loses some of the gee-whiz dynamism of the circus and a small town humming with excitement. Lighting, effective but underused in this production, could help sustain momentum as the action builds.
A natural leader onstage, Ronald Rezac brings a quiet intensity to the role of ringmaster. Yet for once, his innate dignity and whiff of pedigree work against him. Always excellent, Rezac does not quite convince here as the hard-bitten hustler. By contrast, Taylor Kasich as Big Mary’s scrappy trainer seems to have been born soothing pachyderms. Even when a recent production was disrupted by neighborhood music wafting through the walls, Kasich managed to spellbind his audience. Nancy Solomons as a zealous, bug-eyed widow likewise single-handedly gives the impression of an entire town on the brink of hysteria.
Perhaps most powerful is Dan Tullis as the show’s only African American, and a one-man Greek chorus. Steadily eating peanuts from a bag, he critiques Erwin’s hunger for sensational entertainment. And his memory is longer than even an elephant’s. It’s the damnedest thing, he says. No one seems to recall that Erwin used to lynch people before Big Mary came along.
Fittingly — you may be wondering — we never see Big Mary incarnated onstage. Brant’s script spares us the two-person animal suit. She remains a projection of other people’s hopes, fears, love and hate, all displayed nakedly on the faces of the actors and reflected back to the audience to see, and mirror.
Elephant’s Graveyard, through Aug. 5. Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. For reservations, 525-4645 or www.santa paulatheatercenter.org.