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updated: 5/11/2011 9:53 AM

North Central tackles 'Elephant's Graveyard'

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  • Kevin Williams plays a clown in North Central College's production of "Elephant's Graveyard," which opens May 12 and runs through the weekend at Meiley-Swallow Hall.

       Kevin Williams plays a clown in North Central College's production of "Elephant's Graveyard," which opens May 12 and runs through the weekend at Meiley-Swallow Hall.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Jessica Martin is the guitarist in "Elephant's Graveyard," which takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. May 12-14 and 2 p.m. May 15 at Naperville's North Central College.

       Jessica Martin is the guitarist in "Elephant's Graveyard," which takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. May 12-14 and 2 p.m. May 15 at Naperville's North Central College.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Bethany Schick plays a resident of a small Tennessee community where many of the townspeople are both dazzled by the arrival of a traveling circus and a little afraid.

       Bethany Schick plays a resident of a small Tennessee community where many of the townspeople are both dazzled by the arrival of a traveling circus and a little afraid.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Director Kelly Howe says "Elephant's Graveyard" can shift from funny and charming to harsh and sad in nearly the blink of an eye.

       Director Kelly Howe says "Elephant's Graveyard" can shift from funny and charming to harsh and sad in nearly the blink of an eye.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

Kelly Howe finds inspiration in language.

Talk to her for only a few minutes and you know it's true. Even in casual conversation she is careful and precise, measuring the nuance and tone of nearly every phrase.

She is a person who thinks before she speaks and who values the meaning of words and the rhythms of conversation.

It's not surprising, then, that the assistant professor of theater was attracted by an "aurally rich" play you've probably never heard of -- "Elephant's Graveyard" -- and chose to direct it this weekend at Naperville's North Central College.

Written by George Brant, whom she met while studying at the University of Texas, it's an offbeat, based-on-fact story about a traveling circus that arrives in a small Tennessee town in the early 1900s. An elephant named Mary kills one of her handlers and winds up being hanged like an Old West outlaw, the only known lynching of a pachyderm.

"Graveyard," Howe says, artfully combines historical fact, legend and a healthy amount of imagination into a story that can shift from funny and charming to harsh and sad in nearly the blink of an eye.

More than that, it's beautifully written.

"The language is really gorgeous," she says. "It feels relaxed and natural, but also asks the students to really dig in."

The show presents a challenge for her 15 cast members, with overlapping monologues and dialogue that is very contemporary for the turn of the last century, and yet somehow almost classical.

For someone who loves words and language, it doesn't get much better.

"A lot of directors think visually first," Howe says, "but when I read a show, my imagination usually hears the show before it sees it."

Emotional journey

When she first told her students about the plot of "Elephant's Graveyard," Howe admits some of them had their doubts.

But now that they're into it. They too are captivated by the story's rapid changes of direction and underlying themes.

"You can live in a joyful moment of circus life and then you find yourself in a very different moment altogether," she says.

In addition to the excitement of the language, she says, the play "takes you to a lot of different places on an emotional journey."

It also challenges the audience and asks difficult questions as the relatively sleepy Tennessee town is "in a way, invaded by a circus that is vibrant, exciting and, maybe, to them, a little bit dangerous."

Those questions involve topics such as what happens when the performance you witness isn't what you expect and the relationship between justice and spectacle.

If some of that sounds just as topical today as it might have in 1916, well, you'll have to be the judge.

"I'm drawn to plays that ask a question more than they pose an answer," Howe says.

Quick changes

"Graveyard" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 12-14, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 15, in the theater at Meiley-Swallow Hall, 31 S. Ellsworth St.

Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students and seniors and available by calling (630) 637-7469 or visiting northcentralcollege.edu/showtix.

The theater features a thrust stage, bordered by the audience on three sides, and at times will make patrons feel as if they're in the center ring of the circus. It also will put them in the middle of a funny and sad tale that may cause them to shift their allegiances and sympathies.

"I love that," Howe says, "when you think you know how you feel about a character and then it changes in the blink of an eye."

"I'm particularly riveted," she says, "when characters end up having to make choices that clearly break their hearts to make. There are several moments in the play when that happens."

She hopes the audience leaves the theater thinking about why the events they've witnessed unfolded the way they did, and how people can set things in motion without realizing the larger consequences.

"Though this play is set in 1916," she says, "it's poised for fascinating conversations with the here and now."

All about Mary

We know what you're thinking. It's a play called "Elephant's Graveyard." It's a story about the lynching of an elephant. How in the world do they portray the ill-fated Mary?

For the answer to that, you'll have to buy a seat at the circus.

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