Monday, December 19, 2022

Elephant - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

In the heyday of the New York International Fringe Festival, the last days of August were always much needed downtime for me: after two-and-a-half weeks of non-stop theater-going and review-writing, -editing, and -posting, I was glad of a little breather until Labor Day. But after the 2004 festival, for some reason I was persuaded to check out a new play at the Ontological Theater called Elephant, which was nearing the end of its run. I knew a couple of the people involved with it, notably actor Arthur Aulisi (of whom I was and remain a huge fan); but as I remember it, more than one colleague emailed me and urged me to check this play out, because it was something special.

As indeed it was: Elephant is a beautiful work; a comedy that touches on tragedy with grace and insight. We were already well into planning Plays and Playwrights 2005 by this time, but we decided to add an extra slot rather than wait until the next edition, because we wanted this lovely play to be read and seen and experienced by as many people as possible. We met Elephant's author, Margie Stokley, and happily she agreed to include her play in our book.

Elephant became one of the most popular works we ever published. I am grateful to whatever (karma? fate? luck?) made me decide to see a play during a week when I didn't want to see one. review -  August 31, 2004

The daughter, Michelle, is recovering from a nervous breakdown in a hospital. The mother, Kathleen, is so terrified of dentists that she has to be given a teddy bear to get through an appointment. The father, Henry, is driving cross-country, from New Jersey to Arizona, with a mysterious hitchhiker.

And yet they're the most functional family I've seen on stage in a long, long time. Margie Stokley's Elephant, a gorgeous, inventive, and dazzlingly warm-hearted and theatrical new play, reminds us of the things that actually matter: spontaneity, respect, love; above all, caring about people, things, each other. It's being presented by the relatively young ANDHOW! Theatre Company, with a solid staging by artistic director Jessica Davis-Irons, exquisite performances by actors Arthur Aulisi, Amy Brienes, Maria Cellario, Jessica Dickey, and Stan Lachow, and superb design by Neal Wilkinson (sets), Joshua Briggs (lighting), Anastasia Williams (costumes), and Jill BC DuBoff (sound). Talented artists all, collaborating to create one of the most moving and rewarding theatre experiences of the year. This one's not to be missed.

Elephant is about a family dealing with grief. Jay, a marine in his twenties, has recently died in a car accident, leaving behind his parents, Henry and Kathleen, his sister Michelle, and his pregnant girlfriend, Ellen. Separately, they deal with their loss, and together, they find ways to move forward. The play has a fluid structure that takes us into the physical worlds of each of the living characters and also inside their heads as they remember times they spent with Jay. Michelle is in a hospital with an apparently ineffectual therapist named Rich, obsessively over-applying makeup and lashing out at the world as she battles her sadness. Henry is on the road, delivering Jay's German shepherd Blaze to the Arizona breeder where he was born. Ellen, an artist, is in her studio, painting over a big picture of an elephant. And Kathleen is at home alone, holding down the fort, checking in on (overseeing?) her family's progress toward healing.

The memories are vivid, funny, and real: Ellen recalls her first meeting with Jay, in college, loaded with awkwardness and resulting in an unintended rejection when he asks her for coffee and she replies "I don't drink coffee." Henry drives by the Grand Canyon and remembers a long-ago vacation when he watched his son stretch out his arms, dangerously near the edge. Michelle conjures random moments like one at a family gathering, playing a game with the just-found-out-they're-in-love Jay and Ellen. It's all gentle, sweet, inconsequential: trivial details that add up to a life.

I love that Stokley focuses on the ways that the members of this family love and care for each other: Mom is bossy and difficult, but also unwaveringly smart and nurturing; Dad is detached and impetuous, but also thoughtful and warm. Stokley's not interested in trading in stereotypes or archetypes, but instead in carving out real people with whom we eagerly empathize and whom we genuinely like.

I also love how Stokley constantly surprises us and makes us re-evaluate what we understand about these people and their relationships, springing new details on us as she cannily tells her story non-linearly and non-chronologically. There is, in particular, a wonderful revelation about midway through the play that I absolutely will not spoil for you here, for it's also the heart of Elephant—one family member coming to another's rescue in a truly remarkable way.


I am positive that I did not realize that I had seen Margie Stokley in one of Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight! productions (The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd, in 2002)--I even mentioned her in my review. I saw Margie in several other shows thereafter; she is a fine actor as well as a gifted writer.

This show was my first acquaintance with the work of AndHow! Theater Company, but I became a steadfast fan of their work after this, and another show they produced, Andrew Irons's play Linus & Alora, is in Plays and Playwrights 2009. This was also the first of four plays featuring actor Arthur Aulisi that were part of our anthology series.


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