Young David Huntington (Drew Ledbetter) is son and unwitting heir to a family fortune with a prestigious charitable foundation. It seems at first that he’s trying to give meaning to a privileged life by ricocheting from Habitat For Humanity in Mississippi to Uganda, where research on HEC (Human Elephant Conflict) is taking place.
The latter, this play’s fascinating, though unsuccessfully integrated parallel, shows that elephants are, in many surprising ways, quite like humans; that they actually do remember, suffer, and mourn (as well as protect/nurture and play) much as we do and that human-perpetrated traumas hold just as fast as ours.
An ex-circus beast, having been sent to a refuge, will not allow anyone close enough to take off his iron ankle cuff for 5 years while he learns to trust. A bull elephant who kills a man returns to the spot daily, stroking the rock against which the man’s head was bashed, wailing. Grisly consequences of ivory trafficking is also noted. A hundred elephants are slaughtered daily.
(A Trunklines pamphlet available just outside the theater which describes the animals’ plight and the The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee represented here is a revelation.)
Claire Warden, Richard Prioleau
David’s college friend/mentor Elijah (a palpably earnest Richard Prioleau) lives in Uganda with his lover Carly (Claire Warden), a hedonistic, touring violinist who comes and goes as career dictates, adding spice to the relationship. Oddly, we never learn what Elijah does for a living. Exploring his obvious love (and, later, implied desire) for the young man is curiously eschewed for importance given to Carly’s sexual and drug appetites. (The loose-limbed Warden embodies these with appealing gusto.)
Elijah has provided David introductions to missionary? social worker? Olivia (a completely credible/grounded Victoria Vance) working with literacy and poverty issues in Uganda, knowledgeable about local customs. Do we, however, need to see her at an AA meeting in order to glean that she too carries burdens? (Notwithstanding, it’s skillfully written.)
Drew Ledbetter, Victoria Vance
And Kaesem (the solid Ariel Estrada), a passionate (he cries) wildlife biologist studying elephants in Africa and then the United States. Asked by both Olivia and Kaesem to what end he’s conducting research, David’s at a complete loss. Distracted and in pain, we slowly learn he’s running from memories of the violent deaths of his mother and brother.
Ariel Estrada, Drew Ledbetter
David’s home life, i.e. normalcy, is represented by his father’s fiancé, Marie (Lisa Bostnar) who tries to befriend him. Assumed to be a gold-digging usurper, she is, in fact, genuine. Scenes with his soon-to-be stepmother expose the protagonist as spoiled and self indulgent, rather than, not in addition to, being seriously disturbed. One can’t help but wonder whether this is intentional. The terrifically real, sympathetic Bostnar is an utter pleasure to watch, but here, as with Elijah, we are given unnecessary information during a visit to her dead husband’s grave. An otherwise well conceived monologue.
Drew Ledbetter, Lisa Bostnar
Playwright Jackob G. Hofmann can clearly write. In this play, however, he seems to have been carried away by his own dialogue. Diverting exposition makes the piece feel jerky, muddling essential plotline, losing the interesting elephant metaphor in the shuffle.
Drew Ledbetter (David) is the weak link in a talented cast. When silent, he appears neither overwrought nor emotionally riveted elsewhere, but rather as if reviewing his grocery list. Outbursts thus are less effective, yet interaction is bland without them.
Director Jessi D. Hill keeps her players moving in a kind of theatrical caucus race, circling between scenes, setting the stage, posing, alighting in the back when not speaking. Accents are varied contributing to authenticity. Except for David, characters listen and respond. Olivia and Carley are portrayed with specific, illuminating physicality.
Parris Bradley’s Scenic Design is a fanciful representation of African materials. Despite not quite understanding what we’re looking at, he creates atmosphere. Crates combined to form furniture also inexplicably work.
Valerie Joyce’s Costumes aptly describe each character, though what Carly is doing with plastic leggings in African heat is puzzling. Lighting Designer Greg Solomon contributes immensely to the piece, utilizing shadow and color. Inappropriate swing music played before curtain couldn’t be more wrong for the production.
Photos by Russ Roland
Opening: The Company
A Persistent Memory by Jackob G. Hoffman
Directed by Jessi D. Hell
The Beckett Theater
410 West 42nd Street
Through June 18, 2016