Saturday, February 26, 2011

Engaging Our Cruel and Fragile Standards of Humanity

Engaging Our Cruel and Fragile Standards of Humanity

By Tom Wachunas

In his eloquent program notes for the Players Guild production of Bernard Pomerance’s play, “The Elephant Man,” director Craig Joseph is greatly aware that the play presents no clear answer to the question, “Can John Merrick be made more human, more like us?” Merrick was a 19th century English man so grotesquely deformed that he became a circus sideshow curiosity. The attempt to make Merrick “more human” became a driving force for a while in the life of Frederick Treves, the surgeon who rescued and befriended him, providing him a permanent home in London Hospital. But as Joseph points out, the play presents deeper, more complicated questions as to just what constitutes being human, normal, or beautiful, and who, exactly, defines as much. And the very efficacy of attempting to make Merrick “more like us” progressively unravels into exposing the motivations and judgments – far more ugly than Merrick’s physical appearance - of a flawed society.

Additionally, Joseph appreciates the power of metaphor – visual and conceptual – to illuminate the heart of this story, and uses it to great effect. The spare set functions as both tented carnival and “civilized” hospital quarters, with interchangeable, double-duty props, like a trunk that becomes a bath tub. Scene changes are orchestrated in much the same manner that the acts at a circus follow each other in quick succession (Joseph’s stated intent), effectively making us wonder who the real clowns, misfits, and “freaks” might be in this scenario.

That effect is further enhanced by the double roles of the cast members, all of whom constitute as gifted and impressively versatile an ensemble as I’ve ever seen gathered on this stage, right down to their varying English accents. Gregory Rininger’s portrait of Ross, the manager of the traveling freak show, is chillingly gritty and cruel, while as Bishop How, he’s a gently dogmatic religion teacher. Travis Brown plays Carr Gomm, hospital administrator, with convincing dignity and authority, contrasted by his brief but startling appearance as a brutal policeman. Jacki Dietz, Margie Stocker, and Maria Work are electrifying as the slow-minded and bizarre carnival “pinheads” (victims of a head deformity known as microcephaly), as well as the privileged women who lavish attention and gifts on Merrick. Maria Work’s portrayal of Mrs. Kendal, who introduces Merrick to the world of high society and feminine anatomy, is riveting in its struggle between her own superficiality, insecurity, and emerging compassion. In one of many heartrending scenes, after being rehearsed by Dr. Treves to shake Merrick’s “beautiful” and “good” hand, she shakes his deformed hand instead, leaving him overcome with tears.

It’s that kind of very special pathos that is threaded throughout Pomerance’s writing, and so successfully translated here by Nate Ross as Frederick Treves, and of course, Ryan Nehlen as John Merrick. The chemistry between the two characters de-volves from real tenderness - tempered by Treves’ expectations for Merrick to conform to rules of etiquette and other “standards” of societal thinking - into a volatile, confrontational crisis of conscience for Treves. Ross’s performance is genuinely captivating as we witness his confidence dwindle into frustration and anguish over Merrick’s deteriorating condition amid questions about God and the true measure of a human being.

Meanwhile, I think Nehlen’s delivery of Merrick ranks among the most passionate and heroic performances to grace a Canton stage in recent memory. True to the playwright’s desire for the character to have no special makeup or gimmicky costume, Nehlen deftly presents Merrick’s terrible affliction in the form of nervous speech stutters from contorted lips, an awkward, elongated gait, twisted neck, and incessantly blinking eyes that can nonetheless freeze and focus with searing sharpness as he speaks his agile mind. None of these perfectly interwoven quirks interferes with the clarity of his words. His tone has a remarkable range that powerfully communicates his disarming honesty, along with his acute sense of mercy, humor, and irony.

One of the play’s most striking metaphors for searching out answers to his condition is that of Merrick one-handedly constructing a model of St. Philip’s Church. He says he regards a church as an imitation of grace, and that his model is in turn an imitation of an imitation. To Treves’ observation that humanity itself is just an illusion of heaven, Merrick quips that perhaps God “should have used both hands.” Still, as he finally places the last piece on his model – the steeple with shining cross on top – he declares, in haunting (and surely not accidental) reprise of Jesus’ last words from the cross, “It is finished.”

But for us, is it? This is truly great stage literature, and sublimely presented here. As such, the story continues to resonate long past its fast-paced 21 scenes. With urgent, intense relevance to a world still unreconciled to its purposed soul, Merrick’s story remains, tragically enough, still fresh.

Photo by Bob Rossiter, courtesy The Repository: Greg Riniger as Ross (left), and Ryan Nehlen as John Merrick, from “The Elephant Man”. Shows at the Players Guild William G. Fry Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, Canton. Through March 13, at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10 at or call (330) 453 – 7617.

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