The doctor warns the nurse before she enters the hospital room. You’ve never seen a patient this disfigured and horrific before, he tells her. Prepare yourself. Nonsense, she insists. She’s seen it all, including the worst diseases in Africa. There’s no way she will respond with anything but compassion.
The nurse strides confidently into the room, takes one look at John Merrick — the “Elephant Man” — and promptly flees.
One of the fascinating things about Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 Victorian-era-set play, which Fresno State is staging in a solid if slightly musty (and occasionally tedious) production through Saturday, is the way it identifies with that nurse. We’d all like to think we’re strong enough, both in sensibility and spirit, to look past the “surface” and see the inner beauty within a sturdy soul like Merrick. Or at least maintain our composure when meeting someone like him for the first time. But even if we prepared ourselves, we don’t really know how we’d respond to such a situation until we were in it.
There’s a lot going for this Fresno State production, including an impressive performance by a dedicated Dane Oliver as the title character — particularly when it comes to the physicality of the role. Director J. Daniel Herring’s staging has moments of striking grace and beauty. Marc Garcia’s lighting design evokes a vintage sense. And a stirring turn by Kia Vassiliades, who portrays a famous London actress who visits Merrick in the hospital and becomes his one true friend, helps bring the play down from its sometimes bombastic moralistic questions and injects a sense of humanity.
But the script for “The Elephant Man” is so earnest and sentimental that it wallows at times, making the intermissionless production, which clocks in a little of shy of two hours, even longer than it seems.
The playwright portrays Merrick, who suffered from a disease that affected his bones and caused tumors to grow all over his body, in saintly terms. That conceit is reinforced by the character’s first appearance in this production: He’s standing with limbs twisted, head lolling to one side and wearing nothing but a Christlike loincloth, the scene a strong resemblance to the Crucifixion tableau.
We learn that Merrick spent his first miserable years in a workhouse before teaming up with a scuzzy sideshow promoter named Ross (a focused Greg Ruud), who dubs him The Elephant Man because of his grotesque appearance. That’s how Frederick Treves (Dylan Curtis), a hot-shot young doctor, discovers him. After convincing his boss at The London Hospital, the calculating Carr Gomm (Aaron J. McGee in a subdued performance), to take Merrick in, the patient’s life of squalor is replaced with a far more comfortable existence.
But at what price? In his script, Pomerance repeatedly raises the theme of exhibitionism. As Merrick’s notoriety grows, he soon attracts a regular group of well-heeled visitors, including Mrs. Kendal, the famous stage actress who becomes so close to him, and England’s Princess Alexandra (Jochebed Smith), along with other members of the nobility. (In one of Herring’s most strikingly staged scenes, the visitors form a crisp line upstage and offer extravagant Christmas gifts, and the divide between him and them seems oceans wide.) Has Merrick simply replaced one sideshow for a more upscale version?
It’s an interesting theme, but it’s too heavy-handed. The playwright nearly pounds it to death even as he wraps himself up in the suffering nobility of his title character.
Thankfully we’re given the intriguing relationship that develops between Mrs. Kendal and Merrick. Though at first she seems to be there more out of curiosity — or perhaps even because it’s the trendy thing to do — she slowly begins to realize the extent of her new friend’s intellect, along with how lonely he is.
Herring tries to keep things brisk — there’s very little levity in the script — and effectively eliminates all blackouts as characters seamlessly transition from one scene to the next. But he also has his title character slow the pace to an almost deathly crawl at times.
Yes, Oliver offers an exhilarating physical portrayal of Merrick. The role is traditionally played by an actor who doesn’t use prosthetics or makeup to simulate the character’s deformities. (We do, however, see projected images of what the real man looked like, and I’ll be honest, they’re hard to look at.) Instead, Oliver uses his body, mouth and voice to suggest how Merrick looked and moved. Thrusting his arms and legs into stiff implements, Oliver nearly crawls across the stage with the help of a cane, his body bent and one hip cocked into an awkward angle.
But while his physicality in the role is effective — even stunning — his purposefully affected speaking style is too literal. The drawn-out inflections and slow delivery tends to flatten any rhythm the play has into a sluggish, metronome-like sameness.
That literalness is not matched by Jeff Hunter’s awkward set design, which mostly consists of spare interiors staged on a tiered series of rustic looking wooden planks. It suggests more a Colorado ski lodge than a Victorian-era hospital. Elizabeth Payne’s period costumes better match Herring’s artistic concept for the play, particularly Mrs. Kendal’s sumptuous bustle.
Curtis, as the benevolent doctor, offers an earnest performance, but it’s too wooden as he struggles to balance his character’s stiff-upper-lip reserve with any warmth. His emotional outburst near the end of the show is rushed. On the other hand, a solid James Sherrill offers some nice moments as a bishop impressed with Merrick’s spirituality.
Then there are the Pinheads (Aubrianne Scott, Samantha Hyde and Smith), three sideshow circus performers suffering from microcephaly and mental retardation. Unlike the stage depiction of Merrick, the physical deformities of these characters are represented — if not quite literally. (Lauren Ockerman did the show’s hair/makeup design.) With their shiny bald pates and high-pitched blather, there’s something almost surreal about the way they’re represented in this production. That added theatrical texture goes a way toward making this story more than just a sentimental biographical exercise.