Tragedy at the circus. Putting the ideas of “tragedy” and “circus” together somehow makes the mind recoil in confusion and sadness. Why does the circus exist if not to allow an escape from the everyday world, if not to reflect our own broken world back at us and make it seem, if not whole, then at least a little less cracked? The very notion of the clown, someone who experiences a series of tragic events without any of the lingering consequences, is a potent illustration of the point of carnivale. When real death and destruction enters this space, can we ever reconcile the violation?

These questions found their embodiment in Jess Chayes’ ’07 ruminative, rewarding senior thesis play, “We Can’t Reach You, Hartford.” A theatrical exploration of the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, during which an inferno inside the Ringley Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus tent claimed over 165 lives, Chayes’ play combined a thrilling sense of showmanship with a delicate appreciation for the emotional mysteries of individuals caught in the crossfire of public tragedy. In the skilled hands of Chayes and her cast and crew, the gulf between big-top frivolity and painful catastrophe became a potent metaphor for the fascinating, frustrating divide between past and present.

The impossibility of finding definitive truth in the labyrinthine contours of the past was central to the script, co-written by Chayes and Stephen Aubrey ’06. Audience members entered the world of the Hartford fire through the memory of aging detective Thomas Barber (Zachary LeClair ’10). His obsessive, quixotic search for the identity of one of the fire’s youngest victims, nicknamed Little Miss 1565, centered Chayes and Aubrey’s script around the pursuit of fact through the haze of history. Along with Barber, the audience journeyed back to the 1944 fire and its aftermath.

Using a series of anecdotes and monologues that mingled historical fact with dramatic interpretation, “Hartford” persuasively pieced together the fire and its aftermath while constantly acknowledging the seemingly insurmountable gaps and contradictions within the historical narrative. In a particularly striking moment, the ghost of P.T. Barnum (Edward Bauer ’08) blocked Barber’s path as he chased after the ghost of Little Miss 1565 (Tori Amoscato ’08). Can the individual ever see the past in its entirety? Is there such thing as historical truth? Chayes left these questions open for the audience to ponder, a particularly intriguing choice given the play’s own attempts to reconstruct and organize historical facts.

If “Hartford” contemplated some rather heady ideas of historical memory, though, it rarely sacrificed theatrical ingenuity and emotional intensity for staid intellectual navel gazing. Chayes and her talented designers found particularly striking visuals to complement and enrich the difficult questions she raises. Scenic Designer Nick Benacerraf ’08 captured a state of ghostly decay in his aging circus set, complete with ragged big-top cloth and splintering risers.

As any Wesleyan theatergoer knows, it practically goes without saying that the lighting by Greg Malen ’07 proved mesmerizing in its subtle shifts in mood and meaning. While there was not an isolated moment within “Hartford” as breathtaking as the bleak, beautiful sunrise with which he chose to end Mike James’ ’07 production of “Electra,” Malen, whose work here comprises his senior thesis, expertly balanced a variety of tones, ranging from the hellish glow of the inferno to the sickly bright light of the de facto morgue that housed the charred corpses.

The cast rose to the challenge of portraying characters as both specific individuals and representative symbols. Each cast member found moments of wit and surprise in unexpected places, from Randa Tawil ’09, as lion tamer May Kovar, debating whether to indulge in a stress-defusing cigarette, to Gregory Mead-Silver ’10, all twitches and feverish smiles as arsonist Robert Segee, describing his nightmares. Kieran Kredell ’08 engaged in some delightful, Chaplin-esque bits of physical comedy as circus clown Emmett Kelley, but also hinted at the deep wells of sadness that drive the laughs. His attempt to cheer up Kovar by engaging in some vaudeville joking with circus band leader Merle Evans, played by Hansel Tan ’10, rang painfully true in evoking the way individuals employ comedy and theatricality in the aftermath of tragedy.

And Bauer, continuing a string of sterling work on the stage, instilled the specter of Barnum with a wild-eyed, go-for-broke intensity at once immensely appealing and somewhat unsettling. But if Bauer’s Barnum possessed the cheery coarseness of a born showman, he also found intriguing notes of dissonance in Barnum’s bluster. Suddenly, this symbol of showbiz past became flesh and blood in his ambivalence.

Chayes excelled at finding these moments, merging the theoretical and the personal, the theatrical and the intellectual. No more clearly was this demonstrated than during the play’s de facto middle section, a hushed pause after the frenzied action of the circus fire. As survivors and family members shuffled into a large room filled with the dead bodies, Chayes paired off characters on-stage, their half-whispered conversations filled with the frayed desperation and awkward emotional eruptions that occur in the aftermath of tragedy. The actors made no attempt to direct these conversations at the audience, trusting that viewers would remain engaged in these intensely personal, bravely unsentimental moments of grief and need. Taken as a whole, the sequence allowed the audience to digest the aftershock of the fire on a human level, investing the later inquiries into historical memory with an emotional urgency.

In the end, “We Can’t Reach You, Hartford” provided no clear answers to the questions it raises. Late in the play, Barnum told of how Kelley, to commemorate the fire, began placing a single make-up tear on his face before every performance. A fine story, Barnum said, but also a complete fabrication. Yet, as he told the audience this, Kelley placed this tear on his face, and on the face of every other person touched by the fire. Does this mean history depends more on the telling than the acts themselves? That historical representation is a lie?

This critic walked away with a head full of questions, but also a heart both provoked and soothed by the intellectual provocation and honest humanity “Hartford” balanced with such graceful skill. Something tells me Chayes wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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