THE ELEPHANT MAN
Five Bob Equity Co-op
October 21-November 12
So many people do such excellent work in this Equity Co-op production of The Elephant Man that it’s easy to overlook its flaws. In this it resembles the current Playhouse production of The Syringa Tree, another beautifully performed play that finds humanist uplift in awful circumstances. That show turns a blind eye to its self-congratulatory liberalism. The Elephant Man over-indulges in self-flagellating liberal guilt.
Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play re-tells the true story of John Merrick, a grossly deformed and disfigured Englishman exhibited in freak shows in the 1880s until Dr. Frederick Treves admitted him to London Hospital where he remained until his death at age 28, asphyxiated in his sleep by the weight of his own head. Admired for his gentle intelligence and deep Christian faith, Merrick became the toast of London society, patronized—in both senses—by lords, ladies, clergymen and celebrities.
Pomerance suggests that Merrick’s situation in the hospital was fundamentally similar to his life as a sideshow freak. He was still being gawked at, still making people feel good about their own lives by contrast to his, as his former carny manager Ross (Rhys Lloyd) explains to him. Merrick himself (Damon Calderwood) denies this. But director Sarah Rodgers regularly brings into the hospital scenes the chorus of freakshow performers who feature in the earlier part of the play, and reinforces the connection with a recurring musical theme played on accordion, tin whistle and percussion.
At the centre of the play is the relationship between ingenuous Merrick and his saviour, Dr. Treves (Anthony F. Ingram), a good man limited by hidebound Victorian morality and a debilitating sense of propriety. Merrick shows himself more vulnerable and human than Treves—“I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams”—and ethically far more perceptive.
When Treves’ prudery and condescension come between Merrick and the actress Mrs. Kendall (Annabel Kershaw), Merrick’s soulmate and primary connection to normality, we understand clearly which of the two men is more genuinely healthy. But when the play shifts into full-blown guilt mode, with the doctor agonizing over who the real freak is, he or his patient, it seems wholly contrived (unlike the similarly themed Equus from the same era). And despite an otherwise fine performance, Ingram can’t make Treves’ ultimate crisis believable.
Fine performances abound, led by Calderwood. He plays Merrick with almost saintly simplicity, no prosthetic makeup, only a slight limp and a sweet little voice. Kershaw is superb as the liberated Mrs. Kendall, and William Samples does very strong work as the cynical hospital director. Lloyd, Sarah May Redmond, Ryan Hoke and Brahm Taylor all shine in multiple roles under Rogers’ restrained, intelligent direction.
Merrick’s death, with Redmond and Kershaw as pinhead sisters singing him sweetly to his rest, is one of many lovely moments in this admirable show.