The Elephant Man
Also see Nancy's review of One Man, Two Guvnors
Based on the life of John Merrick, as recounted by surgeon Sir Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, the play chronicles the relationship which develops between a freak show exhibition performer and a rising star in medical research at London Hospital in the late 1800s. Owing as much to scientific curiosity and the desire to make a name for himself as to his humanitarian instincts, Treves (Michael Kaye) plucks Merrick from the clutches of his keeper Ross (Joel Colodner) and ensconces him in the sanctuary of the hospital for the remainder of his days. Although not able to offer him a medical cure, Treves tries to give Merrick sufficient social and intellectual stimulation to create a semblance of normal human experience.
Despite his repulsive physical appearance, Merrick's intelligence, curiosity and engaging personality make him a darling of affluent members of London society who feel good about themselves by rubbing elbows with him and contributing to his charitable trust. Pomerance focuses primarily on two of his regular visitors, Bishop Walsham How (Colodner) and an attractive actress, Mrs. Kendal (Valerie Leonard). The Bishop nurtures Merrick's religious faith, while Mrs. Kendal enjoys his intellect and tends to his emotional desires. Colodner's transition from the scoundrel carny with a lower class accent to the veddy proper clergyman speaking the King's English would almost convince you that two different actors play the parts. Leonard gives a multi-faceted portrayal of the actress who approaches her initial visit with Merrick as an acting assignment, but is truly touched by him and develops genuine feelings for him as a person.
The most riveting moments in the play occur when Treves gives a lecture on Merrick's anatomy, displaying the subject wrapped in a white sheet while describing his condition to the audience. Spears gradually transforms his body from an upright, placid figure into a twisted form, and his face contorts with drooping mouth and twitching eyelids. He maintains this posture throughout the play, except for a brief scene when he appears in Treves' nightmare as an able bodied man, allowing the audience to see his pain and constant struggle with every wobbly step.
Kaye's journey as Treves is more emotional than physical, but he is a changed man at the end of the play. A bright upstart with a promising future becomes tormented by what he has wrought; that he has tried to mold Merrick in his own image with little regard for the patient's needs until it is too late. At least he develops a conscience, unlike the hospital administrator Carr Gomm who sees only the bottom line. Russell Garrett (who made an art of foppish narcissism as the Emperor in New Rep's Amadeus last season) disappears into the strait-laced bureaucrat. Ross MacDonald, playing multiple roles, represents a variety of characters who hope to benefit financially by associating with Merrick. A native of the U.K., MacDonald has a natural ability to shift from one British dialect to another, but all of the cast's accents are spot on. Esme Allen impresses as a starched nurse touting her credentials, only to be repulsed by her encounter with the patient. She also pairs with Leonard to play the Pinheads, sideshow freaks whom Merrick encounters along the way.
The scenic design by Jon Savage is minimal and stark, with a utilitarian, black rectangular centerpiece serving as a carny's platform, Merrick's bath, a picnic table, etc. Floor to ceiling panels upstage slide open and closed for entrances and exits. Molly Trainer has designed elaborate period costumes, mostly in blacks and greys, but brightens things up with the colorful circus-like garb of the Pinheads. The dominant aesthetic is dark and shadowy, abetted by lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner, but it seems too heavy-handed. Sound design is by David Reiffel and oboist Louis Toth provides haunting music between scenes.
Rather than making a connection to the obvious humanitarian focus of The Elephant Man, the emotional bond I forged was with Mrs. Kendal. In Leonard's interpretation, she represents the heart of the play, wearing hers on her sleeve and her visage. Although I could feel sorry for Merrick's plight and respect the mechanics of Spears' performance, I was unable to connect with him on an emotional level. Nor was I drawn in by Treves; despite his obvious anguish, his hubris made the bed that he regrets having to lie in. The tragedy of The Elephant Man is that the portrait it paints of a health care system heavily favoring the wealthy is still an accurate representation of our 21st century American system. The debate rages on.
The Elephant Man performances through September 29 at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles Mosesian Theater, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, Massachusetts; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org. Written by Bernard Pomerance, Directed by Jim Petosa; Scenic Designer, Jon Savage; Costume Designer, Molly Trainer; Lighting Designer, Daniel MacLean Wagner; Sound Designer, David Reiffel; Production Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle Cast (in alphabetical order): Esme Allen, Joel Colodner, Russell Garrett, Michael Kaye, Valerie Leonard, Ross MacDonald, Tim Spears; Louis Toth, Oboist