You couldn't find a more fitting interpreter for Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man than the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League. The play tells the story of Joseph (or John, as he came to be called) Merrick, a man born with hideous deformities: spongy masses of flesh, protuberances of bone, a head far too big for his body, a slobbering gap where his mouth should have been. Abandoned as a child to the Dickensian brutality of a workhouse, he was eventually exhibited widely as a freak. I have seen the play presented as primarily a commentary on the smug blindness of the Victorian era, a critique of poverty and colonialism, but in PHAMALY's hands the focus is on the lonely plight of those excluded from society and the existential pain they feel — a pain with which many of the PHAMALY actors, subjected constantly to the unthinking cruelty of people who flinch away or treat them as less than human are intimately acquainted.
It is Merrick's fate to be cordoned off from the rest of society, but the society from which he's outlawed is far from flawless itself. After being abandoned by the huckster showman exhibiting him, he is rescued by Dr. Frederick Treves, whose motives are decidedly mixed: He wants to help this filthy, suffering and abandoned being, but he also wants to further his own research and gild his reputation. The head of London Hospital, where Merrick is taken and lives out his short span of days, is a practical man who has learned that the Elephant Man's presence can bring in significant income. Eventually Merrick is adopted as a cause célèbre by the upper classes in their customary search for novelty and titillation.
The only one who treats the young man with real human warmth is an actress, Mrs. Kendal. Treves believes that Mrs. Kendal's years of dissembling on the stage will allow her to conceal any horror or disgust she might feel on seeing Merrick's deformities. As a professional illusionist herself, Mrs. Kendal understands fully that Merrick's ugly body is only a mask obscuring the creativity and tenderness of his soul, and the two become genuine friends.
The Elephant Man
Presented by Phamaly through February 4, Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora. 303-739-1970, www.phamaly.org.
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And indeed Merrick does turn out to be a kind of saint: questioning, childlike and far more naturally virtuous than the priest with whom Treves likes to argue the respective claims of science and religion. When a porter gets fired for sneaking in a colleague for an unauthorized peak at him, Merrick displays instant empathy. Will the man's children be sent to a workhouse? he wants to know. In a conversation about Romeo and Juliet with Mrs. Kendal, he presents a unique perspective on the meaning of love. And fretting about Treves's rigid rules and ideas, he begins to question the doctor more and more insistently: How can Treves operate without feeling love for the patients whose bodies he cuts open? Merrick wonders.
The story of The Elephant Man is told in a patchwork of scenes, each one captioned like an exhibit at a freak show; the implication is that, in a sense, all the characters — as well as we, the watchers — are freaks. At one point, Treves breaks down and begins questioning his own work. He dreams that he himself is on exhibit, with Merrick using a pointer to demonstrate his physical characteristics in the same unfeeling way that he once pointed out Merrick's. There is a lot of insight in Pomerance's script and some passages of very fine writing, but the characterization of Merrick is a little one-sided and sentimental.
Daniel Traylor gives a heartfelt performance in the role, however, and Mark Dissette is an empathetic Treves. Jason Dorwart brings a balanced intelligence to the role of hospital director F.C. Carr Gomm, and Edward Blackshere is expressive and passionate as the thieving exploiter, Ross. "Mrs. Kendal, you are magnificent," Treves exclaims at one point. And played by Lucy Roucis with healing warmth, depth and humor, indeed she is.