By Kay Kipling
Community theatergoers (and other theatergoers as well) often prefer to see musicals, comedies, or well-established popular dramas. A work like Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man shows up less often on local stages (although it has been performed at least twice here over the years since it bowed in the late 1970s). So Venice Theatre deserves some credit for presenting its current production, which ends the mainstage season there.
Viewers in general may be slightly more familiar with David Lynch’s film of the same name, which is somewhat different in its telling of the story. But both focus on the hideously deformed John (actually, real name Joseph) Merrick, whose unexplained disorder gave him the choice, in Victorian England, of appearing in a freak show or life in a workhouse. It’s understandable that he chose the former; at least that way, he was paid to let people stare at him.
In Pomerance’s play, we meet Merrick (VT newcomer Matt McClure) through the eyes of Dr. Frederick Treves (Steven O’Dea), a well-regarded physician at the London Hospital, right across the street from the shop where Merrick was on display to customers. Treves is as horrified as anyone else at seeing Merrick’s condition, but he and hospital director Carr Gomm (Neil Kasanofsky) manage to bring Merrick to live at the hospital, where he can receive medical care and, eventually, meets some of the top society of the city.
That much is factual; Pomerance (and other chroniclers of the Elephant Man) sometimes bend or compress the truth a bit elsewhere for dramatic effect. But the play goes beyond just telling the sad story of Merrick’s life, revealing him as a man of some sensitivity and intelligence, and also as something of a mirror in which others see aspects of themselves reflected. In other words, it’s not just about this one individual, but about us and how we respond to him, and about other things as well—religious faith versus science, how humans are alike and how they differ, etc.
Overall, this production (directed by Peter Ivanov) hits many of the right notes. It’s blessed with an impressive debut here by McClure, who has both the physical abilities (in Pomerance’s concept, Merrick’s body is hitched at an awkward angle, his right hand a fist, but no deforming make-up is employed) and voice (rather high and thin, due to the twist of the mouth) and successfully touches our hearts. He’s matched by Kelly Wynn Woodland as the actress Mrs. Kendal, who comes to visit him and forms a bond that clearly means as much to her as to him; their scenes together are some of the show’s best.
As Treves, O’Dea, who has been very effective in other VT productions, struggles a little to fit into the role of a 19th-century English gentleman. He feels too contemporary, his accent comes and goes, and some of his dialogue is rushed (to be fair, he’s given some of the most difficult attitudes and ideas to express here). So there are moments when you are taken out of the place and time of the play, but only temporarily.
The Elephant Man continues through May 11; for tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.