By Manning Harris
As I watched Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s (GET) lovely production of Bernard Pomerance’s Tony-winning play “The Elephant Man,” running through Nov. 16, I realized how fortunate I’ve been in my theatre-going career.
The play first appeared on Broadway (after a London run) in 1979; I saw it. Then a new production opened in April 2002; I saw that one, too. And now I’m privileged to see Georgia Ensemble’s version.
The program comments that GET’s artistic director Robert J. Farley has been waiting for ten years for the perfect moment to do this play: waiting for “the right cast, creative team, and director.” I’m more than happy to say his wait has paid off.
Under David Crowe’s meticulous, sensitive direction, a gifted cast is telling us the story of “the Elephant Man” (Jonathan Horne), a real person named John Merrick, born with grotesque deformities of the face and body, who lived in Victorian England. As a young man he was consigned to a workhouse; then he was in a freak show, where he was discovered by Dr. Frederick Treves (Sam R. Ross), a man of enormous but sometimes misguided compassion (you must decide) who rescued Merrick. Treves put him in the London Hospital, Whitechapel, where Merrick lived from 1886 to his death in 1890.
Ah, Victorian England—an often obsessively conforming, conservative society. How conservative, you ask? In a proper Victorian drawing room, the piano usually had lace covers over its legs; because legs could not be shown. In director David Crowe’s program notes, he writes, “Pressure from society, industry, religion, and even fashion…systematically destroyed intuitive human behavior.”
By this time you may be thinking, This play will be too stiff and stodgy for me.
Big mistake. The show has everything: passion, power, human decadence and depravation, elegance, great tenderness, wit, and heartbreaking longing. It touches the germ of human existence.
I cannot get into the intricacies of the plot; but I can focus on moments.
Don’t expect Jonathan Horne as Merrick to be buried under mounds of grotesque make-up. Instead, like his predecessors (Philip Anglim in 1979; Billy Crudup in 2002), he is naked, symbolically speaking. Like them, Horne is an attractive young man. But when Treves begins to clinically describe Merrick’s deformities, as he stands before Treves’ colleagues at the hospital, Horne’s face and body begin to change. And as the audience uses its imagination, Merrick becomes the Elephant Man before your very eyes. The eyes well; it’s an unforgettable moment.
Later, Treves arranges for a beautiful actress named Mrs. Kendal (Rachel Garner, in a lovely performance) to visit Merrick. He has had almost no contact with women in his life. She, being a woman of great compassion and empathy, recognizes Merrick’s capacity for appreciating beauty. They share a moment of almost indescribable tenderness between them. Bring a handkerchief.
The relationship between Treves and Merrick is complex. This is a play of ideas (such as science versus religion), and the two men discover they are more alike than either would have thought. When Treves comments that all of humanity is a mere illusion of heaven, Merrick pauses and says, “God should have used both hands.”
For a brief time, incredibly, it becomes fashionable to London society to visit Merrick.
A character named Ross (Robert Wayne), who managed Merrick in his freak show days and then abandoned him, shows up wanting money. Mr. Wayne manages to make Ross both despicable and pathetic, yet all too human.
Mr. Farley got his wish for a dream cast, for Theo Harness, Holly Stevenson, Steve Hudson, and Ms. Garner all play multiple roles with great finesse.
Mr. Ross’ Treves is very fine indeed in providing us clarity in a complex man whose head almost, but not quite, overrules his heart.
Mr. Horne as Merrick will break your heart; for me it’s a breakout performance; he shows us a man (Merrick) of great gentleness and sensitivity, and in the process reveals himself to be one of Atlanta’s finest young actors. I predict a stunning future for him.
Incidentally, Phil Male’s scenic design and Linda Patterson’s costumes are absolutely first rate. Try to get seats close to the front; this is a very large theatre, with a high ceiling and a balcony. Those are, admittedly, my personal preferences.
In “The Elephant Man” Georgia Ensemble has given us a work to celebrate.
For tickets and information, visit get.org.