Classic ‘The Elephant Man’ reveals our truths at Dayton Theatre Guild
By Jacqui Theobald
Photo: Jared Mola (center) as John Merrick surrounded by the cast of ‘Elephant Man’ at Dayton Theatre Guild, March 17-April 2; photo: Rick Flynn
What makes a classic?
They are nearly always good stories that show us important truths. We read them and revive them periodically.
Starting this weekend, the Guild gives the classic “Elephant Man” a fresh look, as Broadway did a couple of years ago with Bradley Cooper, and with a brand new blue glow created by handsome recently installed seating. Subtle but substantial.
The play by Bernard Pomerance was written in 1977, played in London, and then debuted on Broadway in 1979. It’s the true story of Joseph Merrick, a mid-19th century Londoner with an abnormal appearance and an amazing intelligence.
David Shough directs.
The Guild audience has a fine opportunity to be imaginative. As the play begins, a young doctor, Treves, sees a “freak show” with Merrick and is intrigued enough to make a deal to care for and study him. Merrick, here called John and played by Jared Mola, is forced to stand on a platform while Treves, played by Patrick Hayes, describes his distortions. In rehearsals, it is almost magic to see the perfectly able-bodied actor assume the frightening appearance without makeup or any kind of prosthetic. To emphasize the acting, no prosthetics will be used in the final version of the production, either.
The story, even more powerful, makes Merrick’s hidden intelligence and humanity apparent, though not at all obvious in a glance.
A trio (Melissa Ertsgaard, Meredith Hollingsworth, and Lorin Dineen) acts as the microcephalic and mentally handicapped pinheads in the “freak show.” Merrick tries to connect, but they’re not able to respond.
A conflict develops between the greedy “freak show” manager, played by Mark Reuter, and Bishop How, played by Jim Lockwood. Bishop How wants to educate Merrick in religion. The administrator of the London Hospital, Carr Gomm, has written a letter to the London Times that generates enough public money to provide total care for Merrick. Carr Gomm, played by Geoff Burkman, wants to see Merrick educated in science.
A famous actress, Mrs. Kendal, played by Heather Martin, is introduced just to visit with Merrick. She goes with a sense of do-gooding and distress.
Meanwhile, Merrick is writing brilliantly and studying, all the while longing for normal relationships.
Her pretensions melt when she brings “Romeo and Juliet” to discuss and realizes Merrick’s depth. His repartee is very clever. She brings other high society friends to visit, who are all polite but minimally interested.
His mentor loads him with rules and rigidity. “Rules make us happy,” Treves says. Merrick disagrees.
He longs for a normal life interacting with all kinds of people, so to cope with the lack thereof, he busies himself reading, writing, and building a model of St. Phillip’s Church with his one good hand.
Theatrical scenes reveal to those he knows their own similarity to him, and Treves dreams that he’s displayed on a platform with Merrick describing his rigidity, this “terrifying” normality, and how cruel he can be to others “for their own good.”
Another opportunity for imagination comes with the multipurpose set comprised of four moving platforms, each seven inches higher, from seven to 28 inches. Director Shough has designed the series to be brightly painted by Chris Newman, indicating many scenes including a carnival, a train station, a London hall, and Merrick’s hospital room.
Mola accomplishes the body distortion so convincingly and at the same time delivers his lines with clarity, an amazing accomplishment.
“It is a role I’ve wanted to play since I knew the Guild was doing this show,” Mola says. “I read and researched and practiced. I trust the director to help me get it right and not silly. Yet it’s scary too, not knowing how the audience will react.”
It seems to be well-placed trust.
Shough notes they consulted with a physical therapist, Carol Fisher, who advised Mola specifically how to work out and how to protect his back. “It’s like static choreography,” Mola says.
The somewhat abstract approach works with double casting each of the supporting actors. Ertsgaard also plays the nurse and the princess. Hollingsworth adds the Duchess, and Dineen a countess.
Kevin Grego and Mark Reuter play six roles between them and Burkman and Lockwood also carry one additional character each.
Shough, who has made appearances in several different community theatre productions, says it’s hard for him to decide whether he prefers acting or directing. For this show, he leans toward directing.
“It’s more creative when you have to look at the whole picture,” he says. “It’s a lot more work, too.”
Gary Thompson is assistant director. Melanie Brenner, stage manager, is another person working hard backstage. She has to keep up with absolutely every detail in each discipline. Victoria Osewski is responsible for props, Wayne Wolf is stagehand, and Kathy Mola is the producer.
With all the multiple characters to dress, even for brief appearances on stage, Lynn Brown, a costume designer new to the Guild, has a huge job. She solves it with clever additions and subtractions, devising pieces that can be tied on.
A play set in a small, three-quarters-round theatre like the Guild requires very careful light and sound design, here by Shough and Thompson, with boards run by Jaime McQuinn and Sarah Saunders.
“Elephant Man,” now 40-years-old, has been done all over the world, revived twice on Broadway, and attracted such actors as David Bowie and Mark Hamill.
Pomerance never wrote another classic hit.
‘The Elephant Man’ takes the stage March 17–April 2 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. in Dayton. Show runs Fridays and first Saturday at 8 p.m., second Saturday at 5 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $13 for students, $18 for seniors, and $20 for adults. For tickets and more information, please call 937.278.5993 or visit DaytonTheatreGuild.org.