Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
January 20, 2012
Ever since Adam and Eve plucked fig leaves for coverage, people have been obsessed with their appearance. But what if you were so ugly, so disfigured, that you literally had to walk around with a bag over your head?
Such was the sorry plight of Joseph Merrick, who lived for 27 wretched years in the Victorian era. He suffered from a congenital, incurable affliction that still remains unidentified, but it left him with a grossly oversized head and skin compared to “brown cauliflower.” One arm dangled uselessly; he had a pronounced limp, and he couldn’t lie flat or he’d suffocate – which is ultimately how he died, possibly intentionally.
Merrick spent a good part of his life on display, with folks paying a few pence at a freak show to gawk at “The Elephant Man.” In 1977, American playwright Bernard Pomerance wrote a drama by that name, which won three Tony Awards, including Best Play, when it opened on Broadway in 1979.
It’s a touching story of one sad life, but it’s also something of a minimally plotted morality play – showing the best and worst of humanity in confronting ugliness, loneliness and isolation, dignity and compassion, and exploitation of the less fortunate for one’s own interests.
The primary dramatic relationships are between Merrick and his ambitious young physician, Dr. Treves, who brings the unfortunate into the London Hospital to live, but keeps him confined by space and an array of arbitrary rules. There’s also the beautiful actress, Mrs. Kendal, who’s able to see beyond mere appearance to the sensitive, intelligent, romantic soul Merrick harbors beyond his grotesque exterior. But was she just acting?
For a while, thanks to Treves and Kendal, Merrick becomes the toast of English society; duchess, princess, bishop, actor, doctor – all see elements of themselves reflected in him, like a funhouse mirror. In a not-so-subtle rebuke of Victorian hypocrisy, Pomerance shows a world filled with distortions and deformities.
At OnStage Playhouse, all the trappings are there. Like others who have played the role of Merrick, James Steinberg evokes his misshapenness adroitly, without makeup or prosthetics, twisting his face, body and speech into credible disfigurement. The blackout-heavy, lurching direction, combined with O.P. Hadlock’s herky-jerky line delivery as Treves, serves to distance us from the characters. Cheryl Livingston is empathic as Mrs. Kendal. But there is a paucity of psychological depth in these portrayals that limits our emotional response to the material. The writing can be clinical, and our reactions here tend to be equally intellectual, rather than profound and introspective. Perhaps, as the text becomes more firmly established in memory, the cast can relax and explore the complex layers of the characters.
Because drama, like beauty, is more than skin deep.
“The Elephant Man” runs through February 4 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.
©2012 PAT LAUNER