Directed by City Lights Executive Artistic Director, Lisa Mallette, “The Elephant Man” is based on the true story of Merrick, a young man afflicted with an extremely disfiguring neurological disease, at a time when medical knowledge and scientific understanding underlying diseases was not very strong. “People are frightened by what they don’t understand”. Set in Victorian England, it was common to believe that physical deformity or sickness was a result of moral failing or at least extreme carelessness. Bernard Promerance’s play won 1979 Tony Award for Best Play. The story has also been made into a film by the same name, and went on to win several awards.
Merrick, a shockingly disfigured man, only steps out on the stage after his appearance has been built up with his story, picture, and words about his appearance. When the anticipation has been built up and Merrick does step in front of the audience, it is without fanfare and without special makeup, masks or any special effects to change his appearance. It was left entirely to George Psarras as John Merrick, to convey about his deformities, exclusively through his performance. And Psarras conveys it all. As the story develops, the audience is left to reflect if they had any morbid curiosity of his appearance and whatever other feelings may come up, from pity about Merrick’s looks to respect of his character.
While growing up Merrick has been a sideshow, gawked at, beaten, humiliated, abused, and tormented. When Dr. Treves (Max Tachis) sees Merrick at a sideshow, he makes arrangement for Merrick to stay in a hospital where he can be cared for and studied. Dr. Treves also introduces Merrick to members of London’s aristocratic society and teaches him about mannerisms. High class woman, Mrs. Kendal (Kristin Brownstone) befriends Merrick and perhaps she is the only one who sees Merrick as a regular human being, with hopes and dreams, desires and aspirations.
The main theme of acceptance also rings true today. At one time, Merrick shares about his mother to his new friends.
John Merrick: I must have been a great disappointment to her.
Mrs. Treves: No, Mr. Merrick, no. No son as loving as you could ever be a disappointment.
John Merrick: If only I could find her, so she could see me with such lovely friends here now; perhaps she could love me as I am. I’ve tried so hard to be good.
This is a beautiful production that gets us to reflect about our empathy and in the end, we are moved to respect Merrick, but not wrap him in blind pity. Special shoutout to Pat Tyler for costume design that is true to the period and Ron Gasparinetti for scene design. Lisa Mallette has done a superb job in this challenging production and George Psarras is absolutely brilliant. The play will run at City Lights in San Jose till April, 17. For tickets, please go to www.cltc.org .