New Repertory Theatre opens its 30th season with the profoundly moving drama, THE ELEPHANT MAN by Bernard Pomerance (playing through Sept. 29th). It was good to visit the play again, to reestablish that it’s an important work of ideas about compassion and transcendence. I hadn’t seen it since the ‘70s except in movie form, which is very different from the play. In the movie version we don’t have to imagine the deformities which made this poor, wronged man a side show spectacle. (The movie make-up artists have done the work for us.) The use of our imagination is one of the elements which sets the play apart.
Pomerance deftly establishes how cruel we humans can be to someone considered “the other,” whether it be race, ethnicity, sexual preference, mental acuity or physical disability. Because John Merrick was derided as an “elephant” man, considered “animal” rather than “human,” we can include the cruel way we treat our animals, as well, experimenting on them and slaughtering them because we think they can’t feel, in the lessons we learn from the play.
Pomerance certainly couldn’t have foreseen in the l970s the effect the internet would have on the proliferation of bullying—but as you hear Merrick recount the taunts and violence he endured in Victorian times, you realize there’s resonance there as well. Tim Spears gives a breathtakingly vulnerable performance as the man who suffered the unthinkable and emerges with a radiance of spirit nothing short of remarkable when kindness replaces cruelty and ignorance.
Merrick is rescued by a physician, elegantly portrayed by Michael Kaye, who is keenly aware that Merrick is still on display, albeit in much more comfortable circumstances at the hospital. Just as the doctor in EQUUS struggles with the realization that he may be as troubled as his patient, Pomerance’s surgeon wrestles with “the illusion” that is his success (a trend in ‘70s drama).
Pomerance goes to great lengths to connect the dots and balance all his metaphors by play’s end but it’s Merrick’s connections which make the story touch the soul. When nurses cannot hide their shock and revulsion, the doctor hires an actress to spend time with Merrick. Director Jim Petosa’s production soars when Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Kendal befriends the sweetly innocent, disarming man. And when Pomerance eliminates her in favor of the doctor’s moral crisis, the play isn’t nearly as compelling.
Joel Colodner gives multiple, powerful performances, especially as the wretched sideshow hustler, then as a Bishop who voices the religious beliefs of the times—as do all the other performers who double roles. Oboist Louis Toth punctuates crucial moments and eases scene changes with lovely snatches of melody and evocative runs of notes, composed in collaboration with sound designer David Reiffel. It’s a surprising and welcome (and not at all obtrusive) addition to the show.