The life of Joseph Merrick, often referenced as John Merrick and known as the Elephant Man throughout the years since his discovery, has inspired much study and exploration both onstage and off. Badly deformed by rare skin and bone conditions, the young man lived out his childhood in abusive London workhouses, endured objectification as a human curiosity, and eventually came into the care of Doctor Frederick Treves. Treves ensured Merrick would live out his days at the Whitechapel Hospital in London, where he found friendship in the various visitors Treves introduced as the years passed. In 1979, Merrick's legacy inspired Bernard Pomerance's Tony Award-winning play, The Elephant Man. Perhaps in an effort to minimize the possibility of caricaturing Merrick, or perhaps to challenge an actor artistically, Pomerance stipulated that no prosthetics or special makeup be used to replicate Merrick's physical condition. The playwright intended the actor to convey with body movement and posture the physical deformities of the man, leaving the rest up to audience imagination. In their opening night performance, the cast of Theatre in the Park took the subject matter head on and delivered a sensitive and poignant retelling of a young man's journey and the lives he touched along the way.
With many strengths, both in design and performance, the production's most notable accomplishment is certainly Ira David Wood IV's performance as John Merrick. After a beautifully staged physical transformation, Wood maintained his distinct physicality and speech pattern for the duration of the play. His portrayal of Merrick's trials as a human oddity early in the show was truly heart wrenching. His team of fellow actors proved equally as compelling, if not as physically involved. Ira David Wood III, who also directed the production, was sympathetic and tormented as the lone advocate for Merrick, Dr. Frederick Treves. Lynda Clark was regal and captivating as Merrick's closest female friend, Mrs. Kendal. John McIlwee's beautiful costume design was most complimentary for Mrs. Kendal, capturing both her status in society and informing her character as the extravagant and yet sincere well-to-do English actress.
The supporting company of nearly twenty actors explore Merrick's life in snapshots of interactions. Bishop How (Chris Milner) insists Merrick is righteous, Carr Gomm (Michael Lester) insists he be treated as any other hospital patient, and a slew of visitors find him endearing and artistic as they make his acquaintance. Thomas Mauney's three-tiered set design utilizes the intimate space well, providing clearly defined spaces for the various stages of Merrick's journey. In one definitive scene, these lines are blurred as the entire company takes the stage. As one after another sees Merrick for more than his deformities, the play grows beyond a simple recollection of a difficult life and begins to show the commonality of failure and success from person to person, for better or for worse.
The Elephant Man continues through Sunday, April 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.