At some point in our lives, it's likely that each of us has been teased about something. We were too tall or too short, too fat or too skinny, too smart or too dumb, too effeminate or too much of a tomboy. Or our acne made our faces look like Swiss cheese.
Such childhood traumas pale by comparison, however, to the indignities thrust upon Joseph (John) Merrick in the latter half of the nineteenth century. And one message you'll take away from the Hilberry Theatre's well-acted production of "The Elephant Man" is this: How can people be so cruel to one another?
Merrick was so horribly deformed that many were repulsed by the mere sight of his overly large head, his disfigured face and his twisted body. (Recent tests show that Merrick suffered from Proteus syndrome, and possibly neurofibromatosis type I.) Unable to find work, Merrick teamed with a sideshow huckster to sell himself as a carnival freak – which paid well, although a significant sum was scammed by his partner.
The script by Bernard Pomerance opens in 1880s London where Merrick is already on exhibit. There he meets Dr. Frederick Treves who, curious, offers to examine him. Once finished, Treves places his business card in Merrick's pocket – which proves fortunate after a visit to Belgium seeking work turns disastrous. Sick and incoherent upon his return, local constables find the card in Merrick's pocket and call Treves for assistance. The doctor takes Merrick to the hospital where he serves as a physician, and after a letter written by the administrator appears in the London Times, the public donates enough money to provide Merrick a home there for life.
Merrick thrives at the hospital and quickly becomes the toast of London. His newfound life isn't without cost, however, which leads one to ponder: Has he simply abandoned one sideshow for another?
That's the question director David J. Magidson thoroughly explores in this visually stunning production. That's especially true of his staging: Oftentimes, it's not just the audience that's watching the action; so, too, are characters not needed in a particular scene. (The cutesy Siamese Twins who announce each of the 21 scene titles get a little annoying after a while, however.)
Magidson's strong cast is also very good. But the success of "The Elephant Man" rests squarely on the misshaped shoulders of the main character himself – and in particular, how he is both presented and portrayed. Thankfully, no obviously fake prosthetics were used. Instead, Magidson relies on the skills of a first-year graduate student to create the physical illusion himself. And in that regard, Dylan Stuckey deserves an "A."
With a contorted torso, awkward gait and twisted facial features, Stuckey's Merrick is outwardly repulsive without going overboard. And the depths to which he plumbs the character's thoughts and emotions are equally well defined. (You can't help but feel pity for Merrick.) Most impressive, though, is how tightly focused and consistent he remains in what must be a very physically challenging and uncomfortable role.
'The Elephant Man'
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in repertory through May 3. Tickets: $15-$28. For information: 313-577-2972 or http://www.hilberry.com