The Elephant Man
Giving Tree Theater — through Sept. 17
Bernard Pomerance, playwright of The Elephant Man, passed away on Aug. 26 at the age of 76. Less than a week later, the Giving Tree Theater production of the play — which won the Tony for best play in 1979 — opened and offered proof that its author will long be remembered.
The play is biographical drama about Joseph Merrick (called John in the play), a man stricken with a disorder that made his appearance grotesque but left his mind sharp. Among his contemporaries in Victorian London, Merrick was a horror to many, an inspiration and curiosity to others and a medical mystery to those few who saw to his care. Pomerance’s script explicitly makes the case that in Merrick, people found the qualities they most desired to find in themselves. The play considers the conflicts of science and religion; of self-sacrifice and self-service; and of love freely given and duty resolutely undertaken.
Matthew James undertakes the title role, turning in a magnificent performance. The part requires of James an impressionistic approach to Merrick’s malady, which is to say he transforms himself into the Elephant Man without the aid of makeup or prosthetics. The scene early in the play when Sir Frederick Treves (John Miersen) describes Merrick’s condition as James takes on the deformities described was exceptionally performed. James’ accomplishment is highlighted later in the play when a dream sequence allows us to see him unencumbered by his condition before reality sets in again. James’ role is perhaps the most demanding I’ve seen anyone undertake in quite some time, and he never falters. It’s a masterful portrayal.
James was provided strong direction by Kehry Anson Lane and is supported by an excellent cast. Miersen’s performance is textured, if occasionally a bit too underplayed. Scott Humeston fully captures the conman essence of a man who exploits Merrick as well as the religious conviction of a bishop who sees Merrick as an exemplar of the Christian faith. And Rip Russell is outstanding as Carr Gomm, Treves’ boss and a man devoted to science but also to compassion.
Jenna Smith and Greg Smith each undertake a number of roles, offering detail-rich performances at key moments in Merrick’s story.
Jessica Link plays Madge Kendal, an actress hired to feign kindness to Merrick who soon finds herself feeling true affection for the witty, lonely man. A scene in which Merrick and Kendal clumsily but sincerely discuss his longing for a physical relationship with a woman is perhaps the most beautiful moment in the production. Kendal offers a kindness to Merrick that must be played with great care and genuine compassion, and Link carries it off beautifully.
The play is performed down on the floor of the Giving Tree space, with seating on three sides. This configuration allows for a variety of exit and entrance points and gives the players a sizeable space, which serves to emphasize Merrick’s isolation. That said, some of the play’s key moments, including the shadow puppet introduction of Merrick, are undermined for some audience members. Projections up high on the back wall of the playing space are helpful for those who can see them, but are no doubt difficult to see from some locations.
Richie Akers’ lighting design, however, serves the play well, and Bre Kenney’s costumes are spot on throughout the production. One possible exception was the headpieces (designed by Akers) that allow the women to become “pinheads” in the show.
One leaves The Elephant Man considering the quality and depth of one’s own compassion and grateful for this lovely, sad, stirringly performed production.
The Elephant Man runs at Giving Tree Theater through Sept. 17, with shows at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15-30.
(Note: This review has been edited to correct the designer of the pinhead costume pieces.)