Take a good, long look at the above photo. Imagine being caged in a body like that. Hideously ugly. Virtually crippled. But inside that tragic figure your heart beats with the sensibilities of an artist, the innocence of a child, and the charming wit of a gentleman. This was Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who defied his pitiable circumstances to become the toast of London society. His life story is the focus of The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance which is currently playing at the Barn Players Community Theatre.
Time for a little full disclosure. This is my favorite play. I know it backwards and forwards and am a cornucopia of knowledge in the history of the real Joseph (misnamed John) Merrick. As you can imagine, I’ve got some pretty high standards for this show. I’m very pleased to say that The Barn Players met my standards and even exceeded them at some points in a very powerful and poignant piece of storytelling.
Pomerance’s script is an interesting blend of historical fact (though some events are embellished for dramatic effect) and compelling themes such as strength of spirit, egoism, love, friendship, and what really makes us human. Despite being the title character, Merrick’s presence is more of a force that touches the lives of everyone he meets in some form or another. Some realize their own humanity while others lose theirs. Interestingly, many of the other characters project their own qualities onto Merrick and only two actually see Merrick for the beautiful soul that he is.
These ideals make for storytelling at its finest and the cast and crew do a very good job on the whole in telling that story.
Mark Hamilton should be especially proud of his direction. His staging is excellent and he has coached performances ranging from very good to superior from his actors. I did note a couple of beats that could be mined for greater dramatic impact, but those moments can still bloom during this show’s run.
I consider the role of Merrick to be one of the most difficult and grueling an actor can undertake. Not only does the actor playing the role need to be unbelievably versatile to handle the complexities of the character, he must also adopt an awkward and demanding body language to communicate the infirmities of Merrick. With that being said, Coleman Crenshaw does extreme honor to the role.
Crenshaw certainly did his homework as he understands Merrick right down to the ground. His physicality was tremendous, though he needs to keep that body language in mind at all times. He made some movements that would either have been impossible for the real Merrick or done only with excruciating difficulty. That quibble aside, his interpretation of the dialogue blew me away.
Crenshaw’s delivery is so nuanced it almost staggers the imagination. With incredible ease, he captures Merrick’s innocence, wit, genius, fears, awkwardness, and goodness. And he does it with a clogged and slobbering speech that still retains flawless diction. His evolving of Merrick from frightened creature to bold man over the course of the show is a tour de force and I foresee Crenshaw being in the running for many local acting awards.
David Innis does a fairly good job as Dr. Frederick Treves, the doctor who found Merrick and gave him a home at the London Hospital. Innis presents Treves as a full of himself young doctor who originally gets involved with Merrick solely because he is a good subject for study. His inherent decency appears when he brings Merrick to live at the London Hospital after he is abandoned by his manager.
From there, Innis does a marvelous job showing Treves’ awakening to his own humanity and ugliness as he comes to know Merrick’s internal beauty. Treves grows to hate himself as he believes he has turned Merrick into a freak, albeit a high class one, as he introduces him to London society and bitterly regrets seeing him as a mere research subject.
One thing Innis must master during this run is to project. He was so quiet that, had I not known the dialogue so well, I would not have understood large portions of his speeches.
Stefanie Stevens brings depth and intelligence to the role of Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends Merrick. Originally brought in to visit Merrick because she is trained to hide her true emotions, Mrs. Kendal instantly recognizes the man within the monstrous body and forms a kinship with him. Ms Stevens plays the role with an elegant sincerity and is especially impressive in the moment when she decides to grant Merrick’s fond desire of seeing a real woman in all of her naturalness.
Special notice also goes out to Jeph Scanlon and Sean Leistico who play the roles of Carr-Gomm and Ross. As Carr-Gomm, the administrator of the London Hospital, Scanlon manages to be kindly if a little stiff and serious. And I never thought I would make a critique like this, but he actually needs to enunciate a little less. He was hitting his syllables so hard that it made his dialogue a little staccato. Softening his syllables will let his speech have a more natural flow.
Leistico adds a third dimension to Ross with sheer force of acting ability. The role could be treated as a throwaway, but Leistico is pathetically oily as the manager who robs Merrick of his life savings and is just pathetic when he comes crawling back, sick and dying, in the hopes that Merrick will throw away the life he’s created to be a high class freak.
Holly Daniel’s costumes are gorgeous and a perfect fit for Victorian era London. Laura Burkhart has developed a wonderful “less is more” set that easily shifts from Merrick’s room to the hospital to Belgium. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the music of Daniel Yung. He provides all of the sounds and music of the show with a superior piece of cello playing that he suits to each and every moment of the play.
What ultimately makes the show so compelling is Merrick’s humanity and that teaches a valuable lesson to us all. Life dealt him the worst possible hand and he did not become embittered by it. He rose above it and taught us all what it means to be human.
The Elephant Man plays at the Barn Players Community Theatre through August 14. Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. There will be an industry night performance on Monday, August 8. Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for students (w/ID) and groups of 10 or more. Industry night tickets are $12 at the door. To order tickets, visit the Barn Players website at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100. Parental discretion is advised due to a scene of partial nudity. The Barn Players Community Theatre is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.