Zachary Hebert in The Elephant Man. Photo: Stage on Spring.
The Elephant Man
By Bernard Pomerance
Directed by J.R. Stuart
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
I’ve always been impressed by the Stage on Spring mission in that it applies its ministry ideal through an intriguing selection of plays, some of which are looser in their entertainment of spiritual or religious ideas. In Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, there is consideration given to the faith of both the titular character of John Merrick and his doctor, Frederick Treves, that questions the veracity of said faith.
Merrick’s story is undeniably moving; it’s the story of a pitiable figure that had suffered enough to feel less than charitable towards his fellow man but ultimately found grace, beauty, and forgiveness in the world. But our continuing fascination with him also begs questions that Pomerance is not afraid to broach. How much of that fascination is about using such abnormality to reinforce our own sense of normal? But what is normal? Was Merrick, who came to be known for his poet’s heart, just as normal as the elite who celebrated him?
It is a clear-headed perspective on the story that avoids the emotionalism of David Lynch’s estimable film of the same title. J.R Stuart’s direction is straightforward and unfussy, with a concentration on performance from a skilled and well-chosen cast. As Merrick, Zachary Hebert expertly delineated the physicality required for the role, suggesting the deformity through posture as dictated by the text, but he also discovers an inner existence communicated with deliberate finesse that is everything the character needs. I would be dishonest if I didn’t observe that his dialogue, owing to the fact that his mouth is constricted, was often difficult to understand, particularly in the early scenes, but the audience’s ear becomes attuned and the patience is rewarded well enough by play’s end.
Curtis Brecht is a stalwart Dr. Frederick Treves, a man of uncommon integrity but who still has questions about his relationship with Merrick. Annette McCullough does well by Mrs. Kendall, expressing a note of sensuality that is an important foundation for a key moment of intimacy with Merrick. John Youngblood makes Carr Gomm, the head of the London Hospital where Merrick spent his last years, something more than a one-dimensional bureaucrat, while the marvelous Georgette Kleier and Wes Yunker fill out the remaining multiple roles with flair. Director Stuart also serves as utility player, notably filling out two opposites in Merrick’s exploitive sideshow manager and the Bishop who is his spiritual counselor in the hospital. Nancy McIntosh provided simple but lovely music with violin and viola that reinforced the spare emotional tone of the production.
It would be easy to underestimate the quality of Stage on Spring because of its mission and location in a chapel – such assumptions are common, but Mr. Stuart’s credentials and experience ensure that serious theatre can be found here. The Elephant Man is a sure bet in what is a surprisingly busy local theatre calendar for Louisville and the surrounding area in July.
The Elephant Man
Friday, July 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, 26, 27 @ 8:00 pm
All proceeds benefit St. Marks United Church of Christ Clothes Closet and Soup Kitchen Missions, feeding and clothing 150+ every Saturday.
General admission tickets are $10 and reservations are recommended. Call/text J.R. Stuart at 502.380.6569. Honor system — simply pay by cash or check when you arrive. Doors open at 7:30 and performances begin at 8:00.
St. Marks Stage on Spring
St. Marks UCC
222 East Spring Street
New Albany, IN 47150
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]