The Olney Theatre Center does a brave thing in taking on The Elephant Man, a beautiful, seductive, dangerous play…and thanks to stunning performances in the two principal roles and savvy directing, the gamble succeeds.
Bernard Pomerance’s play, on the page, is an extraordinary accomplishment – beautiful, lyrical, full of subtle allusions and ironic wit. In action, though, it is treacherous. The director’s first impulse is to give rein to the wonderful language – to make certain that the audience hears each profound observation, each obscure, clever, bit of wit. To do so, though, is to assure that the play proceeds at a glacial pace, and that the audience leaves, somnambulant and bleary-eyed, without understanding what it is that they have seen. Fortunately for us, director Jim Petosa makes a different choice, and as a result the Elephant Man he presents us with is crisp and stark.
The story of Elephant Man is well known. Joseph Merrick, profoundly disfigured by an attack of what is now generally concluded to have been Proteus Syndrome, had been left to suffer, first in a workhouse and then in a London sideshow, until Dr. Frederick Treves, a fine physician and an honorable man, rescued him. Treves had not the foggiest idea of what afflicted Merrick, but he arranged for a lifetime of care and dignity in the London Hospital. Treated with kindness for the first time in his adult life, Merrick blossomed into a man of extraordinary refinement and gentleness, writing poetry and holding elegant exchanges with members of the aristocracy and other celebrated persons of his age.
Pomerance’s play transforms Merrick from Proteus victim to Protean figure. Here renamed “John,” Pomerance’s Merrick – who wants nothing more than to be like other people – comes to serve as a sort of mirror to everyone around him, allowing them to see their own best impulses reflected in the beauty of this ugly man’s soul. (The gleaming obsidian glow of Jon Savage’s outstanding set reinforces the point). John Merrick’s penetrating outsider’s perspective on society and the human condition has the power to move those who come to see him: the hospital’s cynical director, Corr Gomm; the archconventional cleric, Bishop How; Mrs. Kendal, an actress brought in by Treves to be company to Merrick; and Treves himself.
We learn early on that Merrick’s condition is incurable, and shortly thereafter that the hospital has raised the funds to provide lifetime care for him. Treves, happy in his personal life, is in an undeterred upward arc professionally. Such conflicts as do occur are resolved quickly, if not always happily. In short, this is a play which deflates all dramatic conventions about plot, suspense and conflict.
So: why does it work? With Merrick’s condition fixed at the outset, it is only the condition of those who come into contact with Merrick which is up for grabs…and, by implication, our condition as well. What keeps this story from being merely a series of anecdotes, and Merrick from being merely a literate Chauncey Gardiner, is force of characterization, grounded in good acting.
Here, this production excels. Scott Fortier’s Merrick is incandescent; a man whose enlightened soul drags his hideous body about through sheer force of will. As Pomerance suggests, the production does not arm Fortier with any prostheses or other devices to suggest Merrick’s condition. Fortier accomplishes it all by distorting his face, body and voice throughout the whole of the production. As Treves points out early in the production, Merrick is incapable of showing emotion on his distorted face, and it is soon evident that his strangled voice can give only limited vent to his feelings. Robbed of the actor’s two most important instruments, Fortier creates a marvelously rich and detailed Merrick with pacing, gesture and breathing.
As Treves, Christopher Lane gives an exquisitely specific performance, identifying the precise mix of altruism, ego, and self-doubt which makes his character, and the extraordinary things he does, credible. Treves is crucial to the story because it is his desire to succeed as a doctor and in London society, mixed with a profoundly sensitive conscience, which makes him vulnerable to Merrick’s pointed observations. Lane, who teaches theater at Boston University, puts on an acting clinic.
The supporting cast, particularly James Konicek in three roles, was strong. I found James Slaughter a little fuzzy as Corr Gomm, both in his diction and his characterization. The text supports Gomm as bold and outspoken – an atheist in Victorian England – and occasionally prone to bitterness. Slaughter’s Gomm seemed to me vaguely avuncular.
Olney’s matchless production values are in full operation in this play. Martha Goldstein’s wistful oboe, played from in front of the stage, ushers us into the production, and the second Act. Every element, from the basement warren from which Merrick first emerges to the nearly-opaque sliding screens to the superb lighting (Charlie Morrison) and sound (Jarett Pisani) design reflect the beating heart of The Elephant Man.
I recommend obtaining stage-right seating if it is available, since the play is canted slightly in that direction. (Odd-numbered single-digit seats). But there are no bad seats.
The Elephant Man runs through June 18th at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney,.Maryland. Shows are on Tuesdays through Sundays. The Tuesday and Sunday shows are at 7.30 (except on June 6 and June 18); all other shows are at 8. In addition, there are matinees on Saturdays, Sundays and on Tuesday, June 15 at 2 p.m. There will be a post-show discussion on June 7, an audio-described performance on June 14, and a sign interpreted performance on June 15. By dint of an anonymous donation, all tickets (which usually run $34-$44) are $10. Call 301.924.3400 or go to http://www.olneytheatre.org for reservations.