One of the greatest things about live theater is that different shows speak to different people. In other words, you won’t please all of the people all of the time. My overall impression of Wilmington Drama League’s production of THE ELEPHANT MAN was unfortunately negative. However, I find it important to note that in listening to audience discussion during intermission and after the show, I found my opinion to be very much in the minority. So you will have to make your own decision.
THE ELEPHANT MAN is a dramatic telling of the real-life story of Joseph Merrick (referred to as John in the play) who was afflicted with a condition, to this day not definitively known, which resulted in several large fleshy growths and bone deformations that lead people to say he was part human and part elephant. He spent many years as a sideshow curiosity before ending up in London Hospital under the care of physician Frederick Treves.
In the Wilmington Drama League’s production director Andrew Chambless uses slideshow pictures of the real Joseph Merrick to place in our minds an image of the man which we are then to apply to Craig Stump’s onstage portrayal of Merrick, which is done without any character makeup or prosthesis. This becomes the first major hurdle in the production for me. Stump’s portrayal of Merrick early on in the production, particularly when Merrick has yet to develop any appreciable sense of communication, seems awkward and borderline ridiculous. It is difficult to buy into. Toward the end of Act I, when Merrick has developed more communication skills, Stump’s performance becomes more believable. That, combined with some humorous lines which begin to appear in the script, helps to end an otherwise excruciating Act I with a hope that it may get better.
Act II does indeed flow much better. We are able to buy fully into Stump’s performance and begin to develop a strong appreciation for the other performers. Edward Emmi’s portrayal of Dr. Frederick Treves shows amazing depth. Treves becomes a very conflicted man and Emmi handles this change very well. Dan Tucker turns in a great performance as Carr Gomm, Treves’ boss and head of the London Hospital. The rest of the ensemble (Rick Browne, Michael J. De Florio, Patrick J. Ruegsegger, Lori Ann Johnson, and Nancy Weber) all turn in solid performances of their multiple roles.
Despite being a Tony award-winning play, I think the chief blame for my negative impression of this production falls on the shoulders of the script. While I certainly understand its overriding message in trying to educate us and make us aware of our treatment of the outcasts in society, I just don’t feel that the script is effective in that regard. I suppose it is possible that the Wilmington Drama League’s production did not do the script justice, but I felt it more likely that this was a really good production of a problematic script. While there are a few staging choices which I disagree with director Andrew Chambless on (in particular displaying slides on the side walls and the inconsistency of the main stage slide with regards to Merrick’s room) I have to commend him for taking on such a difficult task solely out of his sheer passion for this particular story.
Personally, I am not going to overwhelmingly recommend this show. But, as I stated in the beginning of this review, my opinion was clearly in the minority among those who attended the show that evening. What I can say for certain is that the Wilmington Drama League is clearly putting on a strong and committed production. I do thank the cast and crew for their effort.
THE ELEPHANT MAN
by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Andrew Chambless
March 18 – April 2, 2011
Wilmington Drama Leagure
10 West Lea Blvd.