It was September. There was a town. There was a railroad. There was a circus. Elephant’s Graveyard, by George Brant, tells just this story. Documenting the events of what happened when the circus came to the muddy little town of Erwin, Tennessee in 1916.
I will not provide a summary, as the sudden turn in mood and plot is what makes this story so entertaining and moving, and I think it would be best to go into it blind. Although it starts out as quite simply a brief summary of circus life and the jobs of the various folks who travel with it – often humorously – the end of the play will likely have you sitting with a lump in your throat contemplating a great many questions about the country, it’s culture and it’s mood in 1916 and today. In the end, the play becomes a battle of man versus man, man versus animal, and town versus visitors, which illustrates that sometimes reality is the true circus.
I recently saw a student production by North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and was re-educated in what to expect from college theatre. I’m not sure I even know how young adults between the ages of 17-21 could have the life experience to so closely connect and convey the emotions, themes and tragedy that spill from the actors in the final 30 minutes of this short production.
I have said before that student productions are understandably hit or miss, but even in a professional production one would expect at least one character to be slightly miscast, fall somewhat flat in their performance or just fail to capture their character. Certainly not the case in NCC’s production, directed by Kelly Howe.
That being said, each of the characters had ample opportunity to connect with audience. The entire play took place on a single set, which was more symbolism than setting; railroad ties intersecting at a ringmaster’s podium with a crane, ominously hid in the background.
The 15 characters never exchange dialogue with each other, but continually rotate narration of what happened that day, its importance, history and moral turpitude. While not addressing one another obviously stifles the connection between the characters, the guilt, sorrow, and shame, or success, justice and admiration that the characters each express at the event provides some understanding as to how they likely feel about one another.
The only characters not in the play are a young man named Red, and the literal five-ton elephant in the room, Mary, although they are at the core of what takes place.
For the NCC production, I felt that Hwyel Griffith in the character of the ringmaster and Bethany Schick as a young townsperson delivered the best performances. Their final scenes could easily be interpreted as overacting if the emotions were not so genuinely expressed. Griffith had me believing he was not only a ringmaster, but one truly torn between protecting his performers or exploiting them for monetary gain – which is at the core of circus shows. In the front row, Schick was just inches from me at one point with tears so real I wanted to lean over the stage and ask if she was OK.
The play was first performed at the University of Texas, Austin and it might be difficult to find a local performance, unless the screen adaptation of Water For Elephants creates a trend of circus-themed productions.
The run time for the play is one hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission. NCC charged $10 for non-student tickets and gave three performances on May 12 -14.
Although I don’t recommend doing so if you think you have a shot at seeing the play, you can read about the true story here.