Reviewed by Judy Richter
Playwright Bernard Pomerance based his Tony-winning 1979 drama, "The Elephant Man," on an actual person. John Merrick, played by Aldo Billingslea in TheatreWorks' production, lived in England from 1862 to 1890. Horribly deformed by what is now known as neurofibromatosis Type 1 plus Proteus syndrome, he led a life of loneliness and misery, even becoming a sideshow freak, before coming under the care and protection of London Hospital. His care was overseen by a distinguished young physician, Frederick Treves (Jason Kuykendall), who later wrote a memoir about his experiences.
Merrick became the darling of London society, including a celebrated actress, Mrs. Kendal (Rebecca Dines). He was found to be highly intelligent, but because most people saw him more as a creature than as a man, they tended to see their own qualities reflected in him. One of the ironies of his life is that as he came to be seen as more "normal" in some ways, his physical condition worsened, leading to his death at the age of 27. The play also sees him inadvertently revealing the hypocrisy of Victorian morality and triggering a crisis of faith in Treves.
Kukendall's performance, however, is hindered by some poor diction, diluting the clarity of his emotional journey. There's no such problem with Billingslea, who -- in accord with the playwright's wishes -- uses no special makeup or devices to illustrate Merrick's deformities. Instead, the tall, muscular Billingslea first appears wearing only a diaper-like garment as Treves shows photographs of the actual Merrick and describes his condition. With each photograph and detail, Billingslea contorts his body and face to give the illusion of deformity -- a physical and artistic feat.
Billingslea also is effective in conveying Merrick's emotional and intellectual qualities. He's well paired with Dines as Mrs. Kendal, who at first uses her acting skills to meet with Merrick, but then becomes genuinely fond of him and recognizes the beauty of his inner qualities. Except for Billingslea, all of the actors play two or more roles. Edward Sarafian is mainly featured as Gomm, the hospital administrator; and Rod Gnapp plays Ross, who exhibited and robbed Merrick, as well as Bishop Walsham, who ministered to his spiritual needs. Brian Herndon and Ayla Yarkut portray several lesser characters.
One of the principal images in the play, especially the original Broadway production -- which was directed by Jack Hofsiss and starred Philip Anglim and which was presented by San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater in 1980 -- is the model of St. Philip's Church that Merrick constructs. In Andrea Bechert's otherwise worthy set design for TheatreWorks, it comes across as something of an afterthought. Otherwise, the production values are solid with costumes by Cathleen Edwards (Dines' dresses are beautiful), dramatic lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Cliff Caruthers and Mike McCann.
The plot has a few weaknesses, but Billingslea's performance overshadows them.