KPBS AIRDATE: OCTOBER 7, 1998
Writers have always been fascinated by the oddball, the eccentric, the loner, the misfit, the social outcast. Bernard Pomerance focused on perhaps the most outrageous example of all John Merrick, AKA “The Elephant Man,” a freak of nature so hideous that he was rejected by just about everyone. Harvey Fierstein turned his pen and his mirror on himself. As he so achingly and hilariously shows in “Torch Song Trilogy,” his rejection, like that of so many gay people, came not only from society, but also from his own family. Though they’re separated by a century, an infirmity and a sexual preference, the stories of these two men are curiously parallel.
In Pomerance’s 1978 play, the real-life Joseph Merrick has become John Merrick, a late-19th century victim of neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that created monstrous malformations of his head and body, and resulted in his being treated like a circus freak. Treves, a London physician, rescues him from garish exploitation, but the doctor himself suffers from the new abuses he has helped inflict on Merrick. The upper classes take to Merrick with their own misshapen perception, disfiguring his world view by projecting onto him pieces of their own distorted selves. Poor Merrick is a ceaseless victim of circumstance, but despite a horrific exterior, he reveals more depth, intelligence, valor, compassion and creativity than any of the shallow but successful people who attend him.
“The Elephant Man” is a highly episodic piece, 21 short scenes that provide little snapshots of Merrick’s fall and rise and fall. In a touching, disturbing and darkly nuanced production at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Sean Murray has teased focused and gut-wrenching performances from all his actors. Played without makeup or special effects, as the role was originally written, Merrick commands our imagination as well as our respect. Sean Robert Cox is outstanding in the title role, as is Dan Gruber as Treves, Merrick’s soul-searching savior. K.B. Mercer is excellent as the actress who befriends Merrick, and Tim Irving is delightful in a variety of roles, especially as Merrick’s first abuser. The set and lighting are somber and understated, the costumes and sound evocative of an era of Victorian values, rampant hypocrisy and intolerance of diversity. A time not unlike our own.
In some ways, things haven’t changed much from the turn of the last century to the advent of the next. Not much change either from 1978, when Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” was first produced. The three one-acts were first presented individually Off Off Broadway, then moved on to Off Broadway, and finally, to Broadway itself, where the show won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Play. The piece is a shrewd, funny, poignant blend of soap opera, sitcom and psychodrama, focused on one gay man and his neurotic quest for love and acceptance. It was a coming-out party for a whole community.
With his gravely voice, sly, cynical humor and swishy, fey demeanor, Harvey Fierstein became an overnight sensation, recreating his irrepressible drag queen in the 1988 film. He’s a hard act to follow. But, at 6@Penn Studio, Adam Edwards grabs onto the role with guts and gusto, and makes it remarkably and distinctively his own. He’s terrific, irresistible, unforgettable. It’s a true star turn.
The production overall is strong and solid, inventively directed and designed by Bill Poore, who makes superb use of a tiny space, staging, for example, two simultaneous love scenes in one large center-stage bed. Poore’s entire cast is delectable, especially Kristenmarie McCarthy as the beleaguered wife of Arnold’s bisexual lover, and Marlene as Arnold’s prototypically Jewish mother, who could steal the last act if she’d pick up the pace and play less for laughs. There are plenty of those; the writing is really funny.
Though the play is almost 3 1/2 hours long, the time fairly flies. But the piece could easily be trimmed without losing its punch — it would still move us and touch us and, like “The Elephant Man,” force us to re-examine our narrow vision.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.