Fever Dream Repertory brought a stirring production of THE ELEPHANT MAN by Bernard Pomerance to the Second Stage at the Adrienne Theatre in Philadelphia tonight. Most of us are familiar with the “classic and poignant true story about the man who looked like a monster, but whose luminous spirit captured the heart of a nation.” THE ELEPHANT MAN won the 1979 Tony for Best Play and several other prestigious awards that year, as well as in later revivals.
The current stage production, deftly directed by Gary L. Day and performed by a stellar cast, reveals a world of monsters within us, and the innocence of the monster outside.
The story is about more than that, isn’t it? It’s also about striving to be like everyone else. What’s worse? Being so different you scare people? Or, trying to change other people to conform to your way of thinking? Or, to change yourself to please those people you have affected or afflicted? Who has the right to ask you? Is it okay if it’s in the name of God or Science?
The saying, “It’s a cruel world,” must have come from this play. I have no proof of that—just a feeling. It fits so perfect here. At times sad, mean, witty, or uplifting, the play does not depress but forces you to stop what you’re doing and think. Sometimes plays do that, and that’s a good thing.
Contributing greatly to the show’s success were the superb performances by both Wade Andrew Corder as the good doctor, Frederick Treves, who rescues Merrick; and Joe Matyas, whose masterful contortions and acting transformed a young man into Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, without disguise, costume or make-up as in the original play.
Matyas begins his contortions nude on stage with Dr. Treves describing him to an audience of medical professionals. As the doctor describes what effect the massive deformity is having on the normal parts of his body, Matyas adjusts his body accordingly, ending with a believable character for the rest of the play. He was even able to increase his handicap later as he was deteriorating and losing more normalcy as time went on.
I was very impressed by the craft and consistency of Corder and Matyas throughout the show. You can’t flinch in an intimate theatre like the Second Stage; there’s simply no place to hide.
Then again, all the actors gave fine performances. Apart from the outstanding leads, I found Brittany Brazill (Mrs. Kendal) very convincing in a subtle, yet pivotal role. Daniel Patrick DeRosia as Ross shined as well in a tough role, especially after he deserts Merrick and returns a broken wreck of a man.
The stage, pretty bare most of the time, was changed only as much as it needed to. It was a simple stage as in the original Broadway production. It contained two cut-away walls to give actors exits and entrances, and then furniture and props were added as needed. This way, we are focused more on what the characters say and do rather than looking for a nineteenth century re-creation of London and Brussels.
The first conversation introducing us to Dr. Treves and his story was a bit staid. Once Dr. Treves started telling his story, the play really began to move. Ross was too in-your-face at first. I grant you he is supposed to be crass, but I think in the intimacy of the setting, it was overkill. Too much audience recoil is distracting. I was surprised by the nudity on stage but thought it was used appropriately. Treves’ dream sequence later was nicely staged and effective.
Even though most of us know this story, sometimes it is hard to follow the action if you aren’t listening closely. For audiences that like to think and feel deeply for the characters, then this is the show for you. THE ELEPHANT MAN will start you thinking and leave you speechless. It may even be a little cathartic.
THE ELEPHANT MAN
by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Gary L. Day
January 7 – 22, 2011
Fever Dream Repertory
Second Stage at The Adrienne
2030 Sansom St., 2nd floor