New Rep’s season opener, “The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance, directed by Artistic Director Jim Petosa with many of the actors from his memorable last season closer “Amadeus”, is a reminder that if you believe that beauty is only skin deep, this play’s not for you. It also serves as witness to the wit and wisdom of this winner of the 1979 Tony, Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards as Best Play. Based on the life of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890) in London (and, briefly, Belgium), it explores society‘s treatment of those people who are different, or at least appear to be, and are consequently either categorized, ostracized, or institutionalized. The fact that it takes place in England in the Victorian Era by no means lets us off the hook, as even a superficial review of health care priorities today would prove. This is a work that, in the right hands, plays much more hauntingly than it reads on the page; it is one of those works that a director and her or his team of actors can make soar.
In this production, the words on the page do indeed take flight, for they are unquestionably in the right hands. The incredible experience that Petosa and his team of actors and technical crew created last spring is equaled if not surpassed here, starting with the astonishing performance by Tim Spears (last season’s Mozart) again in the title role of the physically deformed young man. When he cries out “sometimes I think my head is so big because it is full of dreams”, it’s a truly heartbreaking moment, as we see clearly what his contemporaries by and large did not. His apparent rescue from exploitation by Dr. Treves (Michael Kaye, also wonderful) is merely the beginning of more subtle and insidious treatment. As his first carnival “manager” Ross (a very believably creepy Joel Colodner) describes his new “home” at London Hospital, it is a milieu that exemplifies “places cruel to life are the most revealing scientifically”. When Merrick asks “I have a home? As long as I like?” and is told “that is what home is”, he at first fails to see the hypocrisy afoot. Later in the play a wiser Merrick asks “if your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”, and is told by his protector Treves that “rules make us happy because they are for our own good”. As Merrick finishes constructing a model of the nearby St. Philip’s Church, he states “I make an imitation of an imitation….we are all just copies? of originals?…who made the copies?…He should’ve used both hands”, evidencing a level of intelligence most of his contemporaries missed. And, in the most revealing moment in the play, in a dream of Treves, roles are reversed and Merrick analyzes Treves: “…as a boy (he) developed a disabling spiritual duality, therefore was unable to feel what others feel, nor reach harmony with them…thus denied all means of escape from those he had tormented”. It’s a fabulously heightened theatrical moment, an unforgettable one.
Spears as our seemingly unlikely hero is surrounded by a versatile, extraordinary cast, all of them (except Spears himself) in multiple roles that display the breadth and depth of the local talent pool. Valerie Leonard is terrific as Mrs. Kendal (and one of the Pinhead Sisters), as are Russell Garrett as Carr Gomm (and a train conductor), Esme Allen as Miss Sandwich (and Princess Alexandra and a Pinhead Sister). The aforementioned Colodner also shines in the additional roles of Bishop Walsham How and Snork. In several supporting roles (Lord John, the manager of the Pinhead Sisters, a policeman and Will), with suitable regional accents for each of his characters, Ross MacDonald also stands out. All of their work is enhanced by the atmospheric musical accompaniment by oboist Louis Toth. The technical crew all added substantially to the overall wonder of this production, from the ingenious Scenic Design by Jon Savage (not an easy job given that the play consists of twenty-one scenes), complex Costume Design by Molly Trainer and Lighting Design by Daniel Maclean Wagner, effective Sound Design by David Reiffel, and the musical accompaniment by Toth (playing music beautifully composed by Reiffel).
At the close of the play, Treves is asked if he has anything to add to Merrick’s obituary after his inevitable early death. When he has one (unexpressed) belated thought, he is told : “It’s too late, I’m afraid. It is done”. By this time, the audience has been transported to a level of theatrical perfection rarely seen. As each well-meaning character expresses how “very like me” Merrick was, we come to realize that, beneath the skin, it is not Merrick but all those around him (and, by extension, we as well) who are carrying baggage. It’s a triumph for all who contributed to this marvelous, flawless production.