It was the feel-good story of 1884: they found him on the street, polished him up and made him the darling of high society —until, of course, his condition overpowered him. In its day, the "salvation" of John (real name Joseph) Merrick from a life of freak-show terror symbolized everything the Victorians wanted to believe about their fundamental compassion and decency. In Bernard Pomerance's play Elephant Man, this self-righteous and indeed selfish charity is exposed as everything we like to believe we're too compassionate and decent to inflict upon one another: manipulations that reduced Merrick to a cause, a syndrome, a symbol—anything but a person. Despite all the trappings of normality granted him by doctors at the Royal London Hospital, Merrick remained as much of a captive—as much of a freak—as he ever was on the street.
This potent and vivid production at Stages (memorably directed by Gavin Carlton) adds rich texture to the play's conceit that deformity is more than just skin-deep, demanding a more substantial examination of our own definitions of humanity.
Elephant Man closely follows the remarkable arc of Merrick's history. He was a sideshow attraction until he was discovered by surgeon Frederick Treves; he became quite the celebrity, even receiving royal visits in his tiny hospital room; and he was, by all accounts, as intellectual and charming as one could hope, even penning a short autobiography before he died.
Merrick's life is already rippling with drama, tension and emotion. The real task for a production—as it was for Merrick's contemporaries—is to pierce the symbolism inherent in his ailment. It's easy to use the Elephant Man as a device. Who's really deformed, the play inquires shrilly: The unassuming and humble Merrick or the pompous Victorians who keep him? To make the Elephant Man a man, however, is another story—and it's that story that Carlton and his cast tell best.
Admittedly, the production sometimes creaks and sputters. When Merrick chirps that his head is so big because it's full of dreams, or that he just opens his mouth and out pops the truth, you can't help but think he's a bit of a pompous wanker himself. But Robert Dean Nunez as Merrick transcends the few uncomfortably maudlin spots in the play with the help of director Carlton, who fleshes out Merrick's inner life via an ambitious and elaborate staging that leans as much toward the vocabulary of film as it does theater.
While you could argue that the reliance on cinematic effect at times overpowers some of the subtler interactions between the play's supporting characters, you can't argue with its stimulating properties. From the deliciously staged freak-show appearance of the pinheads to a filmed shot of a lecture hall full of medical men who are revolted by Treves' first public display of Merrick, the technical wizardry brings a richer feel to this play, illuminating Merrick's inner monologue.
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Nunez wears Merrick's deformity with grace and feeling but best captures the Elephant Man's deep and lonely imagination. To hear him weep is wounding, but to actually see him as no one else can see him—standing straight and confident, his smooth, unmarred hand held out to a lady —is heartbreaking.
The cast sharpens Carlton's edge, shouldering the white-man's-burden philosophy quite nicely. Bryan Jennings' Treves is a self-satisfied monolith of a man, uncomfortably comfortable with taking over Merrick's life. Jennifer Bishton's Ms. Kendal, an actress charged to provide Merrick with some charitable female companionship, pegs the power inherent in her pity as she delights in being so kind and understanding to this unfortunate.
There was a poem the real-life Merrick was supposedly fond of quoting, about how the mind and the soul are the measure of the man. It resonates with added poignancy in this production, in which Merrick is measured (literally and metaphorically) by everything but. As a disorder personified, he is a celebrity; as a person, he goes unexamined. Menaced by his old freak-show keeper one late night, Merrick defends his new life in the isolated annex of the Royal London Hospital. "These people are my friends," he protests. "Are they?" his keeper asks. "Seems to me you're still selling the same service at no charge."
Elephant Man at Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth, Ste. 4, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesentertainment. com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through March 3. $15.