note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
I’ve seen the movie and play, “The Elephant Man,” previously, but Salem Theatre Company’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s Tony Award-winning play created a greater dramatic impact on theatergoers- and me. This compelling play, sensitively captured in Salem’s small space, also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, and the New York Drama Critics Award in 1979.
Theatergoers are aware of the tragic, authentic story of severely, physically deformed Joseph Carey Merrick, a.k.a. the Elephant Man, of Victorian London. Pomerance changed Merrick’s first name to John, but closely follows highlights of Merrick’s brief life, from his exploitation in a traveling freak show in Belgium to his notoriety among gentry after his discovery and rescue by Dr. Frederick Treves, until Merrick’s untimely death.
Pomerance insisted any actor portraying Merrick (talented Marc St. Pierre here) not wear make-up, but rely on his speech and creative interpretation. St. Pierre’s spiritual metamorphosis, from a handsome, perfectly formed man wearing only a white brief and bathed in an ethereal glow, to slowly scrunching and contorting his body, limbs and face to depict Merrick’s devolvement into disfigurement, is breathtaking. During Merrick’s distortion, actor Joseph O’Meara as Dr. Frederick Treves, vividly narrates Merrick’s hideous protusions and disfigurement, leaving theatergoers to imagine his grotesque likeness.
The small theater, with the audience seated on three sides, envelops its small, central stage, layered with designer Nate Bertone’s olden-day, antiseptic-looking hospital drapes, and electronic messages announcing each one of the 22 scenes, running across the uppermost, horizontal bar of its frame.
Salem Theatre Company’s veteran artistic director-director John Fogle achieves astounding theatrical clout with those versatile drapes, Greg Mancusi-Ungaro‘s lighting and sound designer Matthew Gray‘s offstage, echoing voices, street noises, between-scenes music, and other associated sounds to heighten the effects. They also obscure abject inhumanity by silhouetting scenes involving brutal beatings and humiliation Merrick endured before being rescued by Dr. Frederick Treves.
Toni Elliott’s handsome, historic costumes catapult us back to Victorian London, when health care wasn’t available to everyone, and attitudes towards the grotesque, malformed, mentally challenged and other medical misfits were cruel.
Pomerance peels back Merrick’s horrific layers of humiliation, pain, and abuse he endured, and focuses on the disfigured young man’s sensitive, perceptive, and intelligent persona, while footnoting society’s cruelty to afflicted people. He also punctuates scientists’ and clergymen’s friendship and perception of Merrick as one of God’s oddities, and clinically cold, yet caring savior Treves, who insists his stringent rules and detached treatment are for Merrick’s own good.
The play follows Merrick’s being mistreated and robbed in Belgium, where his promoter abandoned him. He contracted a bronchial infection, was beaten in a train station, but taken to a London Hospital, then rescued by Dr. Treves, whom Merrick met earlier, and was carrying Treves’ business card when he was assaulted.
Merrick is incurable, but Treves, hospital hierarchy, and the Pathological Society improve Merrick’s quality of life by raising supportive funds for his care, public awareness, and arranging comfortable living quarters for him - a home - at the hospital. Merrick advances from a piteous lump of humanity to a well-dressed, well-read, literary-quoting figure who charms dignitaries and celebrities.He even constructed a complex model of a church, with his one, good hand.Despite his notoriety and fame, Merrick can’t achieve his sole wish - to be normal, like other men. And even though dignitaries lavish praise and gifts on him and his self-esteem improves, his incurable condition worsens. Sadly, we grieve his death of asphyxia, on April 11,1890, at age 27.
Joseph O’Meara as Treves and Marc St. Pierre as Merrick deliver potent performances, especially when they spar philosophically and intellectually. Too, Linda Goetz is charming as actress Mrs. Kendall, who becomes enchanted and charmed by Merrick’s insight, sensitivity and knowledge of poetry, literature and theater, including Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet;” and veteran actor Brian Casey is laudable as Merrick’s fictitious promoter, Ross.
Jeffrey Phillips as Carr Gomes lends dignity, as does Gary LaParl in his fast-changing roles as Bishop How. Lending fine support, each portraying multiple roles, are Chris Clark, Gale Argentine and Audrey Claire Johnson. In the final scene, as hospital administrator Gomm delivers an account of Merrick’s death and the hospital investors’ report, he intones, “It is done.”
In fact, “The Elephant Man” is superbly done.
BOX INFO:One-act, 95-minute Tony Award-winning play by Bernard Pomerance, directed by John Fogle, appearing with Salem Theatre Company, through Feb. 15 at 90 Lafayette St., Salem: Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets:$25; seniors, $20; students, $10. Visit www.salemtheatre.co, or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111.