TEN YEARS ago Philip Anglim appeared at the Mechanic Theatre in a lauded production of "The Elephant Man." For his interpretation on Broadway of the tragically misshapen John Merrick, Anglim garnered the prestigious Tony Award.
Now the actor is back at the Mechanic, starring with A. Mappa through Dec. 30 in David Henry Hwang's bizarre but brilliant work, "M. Butterfly," the winner of the 1988 Tony as Best Play.
Hwang's play attempts to dispel the stereotypes associated with Eastern and Western cultural and sexual mores. In doing so, Hwang has created a strange situation of questionable gender. In an inverted version of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" story, a French diplomat becomes obsessed with a delicately beautiful Chinese opera singer who may or may not be a man and a spy.
Anglim is the diplomat, Rene Gallimard, enchanted by the very feminine Song Liling, played by Mapa.
"The whole idea was based on newspaper accounts of an international spy scandal which led to a weird romantic entanglement," Anglim said as he sipped tea in his dressing room prior to an evening performance.
Smartly attired in blue jeans, leather jacket, red sweater and white scarf, the personable actor seemed a far cry from the insecure, deluded character he is portraying.
"Gallimard is flawed like all of us," he added. "People don't live up to his expectations. Although David's play has strong political and racial themes, it is really about the transformational power of love.
"Gallimard simply at too early an age found himself inadequate to make human contact and so retreated into his imagination. That is why he fantasizes about finding the perfect woman. Perfection is not real but, as he says in the play, 'Happiness is so rare our minds turn somersaults to protect it.'"
Anglim said his interpretation differs from that of John Lithgow, the actor who originated the role on Broadway. (Since Lithgow, the part has been performed by David Dukes, John Rubenstein and Tony Randall.)
"When I talked to the producer, I told him I can only do this if I play the reality of the love story. John did not. He focused more on the character's inadequacies . . . his clumsiness.
"But I feel once you fall in love, love makes you graceful."
In his early days in San Francisco, where he grew up, Philip had visions of becoming a veterinarian. "But the new drama teacher at the high school put me in a play and I got the infection of acting," he said.
He received his bachelor of arts degree in English from Yale University in 1975. While in college, Anglim worked in summer stock in Connecticut, existing on $75 a week. The aspiring actor, never formally trained, took off to New York after graduation and spent several years knocking on doors and pounding the pavement.
"I had the drug of impatience," he said. "I auditioned for everything and mostly worked out of New York in regional theaters."
Between acting assignments, Anglim walked dogs to earn money. "I would take out a half dozen dogs for a two-hour stroll. It was a good experience and paid well. Better than waiting on tables. I would audition for the dogs," he said, smiling. "They were a receptive audience."
The favorable critical assessment of Anglim's rendition of Merrick, the ''Elephant Man,'' a terribly deformed young Victorian Englishman suffering from neurofibromatosis, was all the more exceptional since the actor played the role without any makeup.
"That was the playwright, Bernard Pomerance's, decision," said Anglim. "He did not suggest anything more than motor deficiency and speech impediment. What we were supposed to see was the inner man."
After his phenomenal success as Merrick, Anglim began a movie career and had a "fling" with television. "I played the illegitimate son of Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward in the miniseries 'The Thornbirds.' It was probably one of the better TV experiences, but it still went too fast for me," the confirmed stage actor said.
"I appreciated the work, though. The money I earned from that show allowed me to buy a 600-acre cattle farm in Tennessee. It is deep into the woods and only an hour from Nashville."
There the actor, who is divorced, relaxes and works on his "great American novel," a sociological murder mystery. "I have 200 pages written," he said. "I will get back to it after the tour ends in September. But the dogs, horse, 110 cows and three bulls consume a lot of my time."
Anglim starred in the film "Testament" with Jane Alexander and in "Haunted Summer," now out on video. He also performed in "The Man Inside" and in a soon-to-be released movie, "Milena," in which he plays writer Franz Kafka in both a French and English version.
In a recent Lincoln Center production (which was later shot live for the Arts and Entertainment Cable Network), Anglim took on the challenging role of Macbeth.
"The youthfulness of it was different than any other interpretation," he said. "The part is usually played by middle-aged men. I felt the driving ambitions of Macbeth belong to someone who is younger. With middle-age come peace and more acceptance."
Of his role in "M. Butterfly," Anglim noted, "Gallimard ultimately ends tragically. His greatness is that he refuses to accept limits to his imagination. That daring to have the life he created against all the real odds gives him his nobility."
Anglim said he is glad to be back in Baltimore, where he spends his days visiting the Inner Harbor, the museums, restaurants and other sites. He enjoys walking the city streets observing the architecture and renovations.
"I feel the city has a livable European flavor," he said. "There are no skyscrapers. Everything is geared to human scale. I like that."