You know what a society is by knowing who’s outside it. By their freaks you shall know them, you might say. Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man,” at Venice Theatre introduces us to John Merrick, a deformed man whose very existence challenged late Victorian society to its core.
The facts are these: Joseph “John” Merrick, (1862 to 1890) suffered from a congenital abnormality resulting in bony protuberances, an oversized, gourd-shaped head, a withered right arm and skin resembling leathery cauliflower. A freak show promoter exploited his elephantine appearance and exhibited him as “The Elephant Man,” then ultimately robbed and abandoned him. Dr. Frederick Treves, the eminent surgeon, rescued Merrick and kept him for a time at London Hospital. He became a darling of high society and built an amazingly intricate model cathedral. Merrick’s happiness was brief. He only had a few years to live.
Pomerance’s play (not the basis for David Lynch’s movie) uses these bare facts to investigate both Merrick’s life and the society in which he lived. Merrick is the quintessential outsider; his deformities function as a weird funhouse mirror. Unrefined people see his freakishness. They gawk and feel superior — or try to hunt him down. Scientists see their own impotence: They have no idea what’s causing his condition or how to treat it. People of faith see a modern-day Job. An actress sees a fellow human being whose appearance is also a commodity. In an odd way, they’re both in show business.
Peter Ivanov’s direction unfolds Pomerance’s sometimes witty, sometimes heartbreaking script in a series of vignettes punctuated by ironic titles on video monitors. It’s a sympathetic look at the man, not a freak show.
Matt McClure is powerful as Merrick. He conveys his character’s abnormalities through performance alone without the aid of appliances or makeup. It’s brilliant physical acting worthy of Lon Chaney — and an equally brilliant characterization of a man of faith whose faith is tested to the limits. Steven O’Dea’s Treves is a man of science — and a rationalist, atheist and skeptic. He’s Merrick’s protector — compassionate and supportive but occasionally patronizing. In one revealing scene, Treves forces Merrick to complete a catechism about obeying society’s rules “for his own good.” But who’s fooling whom? In his heart, Treves believes the rules are mere tools of social order and not always for the good of those who obey. He knows that having “The Elephant Man” at the hospital brings notoriety and donations. Treves’ conscience pricks him with that guilty knowledge: Is he running a glorified freak show? Is he any better than Ross, Merrick’s original keeper? The answer is yes. Ross is a loathsome individual, though fully human, as played by Rik Robertson. Neil Kasanofsky is also multidimensional as Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator, who, like Treves, fully grasps the moral gray zone he’s entered. Kelly Woodland’s actress character, Mrs. Kendall, gets closest to Merrick’s humanity. She sees through mere appearances because she’s in the business of appearances.
Supporting actors Angela Bernardo, Dan Cavanaugh, Charlotte Crowley, Jenny Elliott, Gary Grossman, Patrick Taney and Allyson Robertson are also effective, in performance styles ranging from nuanced to Grand Guignol. Kudos to all!
It’s a moving play, which moves from a fairly straightforward first act to magical realist territory in the second. The technical team of set designer Pete Sayer, lighting designer John Andzulis, costume designer Becky Evans and sound designers Dorian Boyd and Kitty Leonowicz nicely evokes the mercurial mood.
Does this strange episode from the 1880s still speak to us today? You’d better believe it.
Today’s society lacks the Victorians’ black-and-white moral code. The cult of appearance is our new dominant religion. To be fair, we’re more tolerant of the disabled now. But that official tolerance is skin deep.
We still have our freak shows, sometimes disguised as reality television. Today, Merrick might be the star of one. We’d invite him into our living rooms every week … but he’d remain the ultimate outsider.
IF YOU GO
“The Elephant Man” runs through May 11, at Venice Theatre, 140 W. Tampa Ave. Call 488-1115 or visit venicestage.com for more information.