OLNEY -- Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man" is a beautiful account of an ugly man. Most of the play takes place in a hospital, but it is concerned more with healing the spirit than healing the body.
From the opening plaintive cello strains that usher in Olney Theatre's production, the beautiful and ugly, spiritual and corporeal come together in this sensitive interpretation, directed Jim Petosa and highlighted by Bruce R. Nelson's riveting performance in the title role.
Much of the script's genius is that it uses the details of the life of John Merrick -- a 19th century Englishman grossly disfigured by what is now believed to have been either neurofibromatosis or Proteus Syndrome -- to examine not only the distinction between internal and external beauty, but also such issues as the conflict between science and religion, the motivations behind charity and the quality of human nature.
Convinced that the specifics of Merrick's appearance would detract from these issues, the playwright insists the role be played without makeup. It is up to the actor to make the audience see what isn't there. And, Mr. Nelson -- a 1988 graduate of Towson State University, who spent much of last season playing Merrick with Olney's affiliated touring company, the National Players -- does an astounding job.
For almost all of the first act, Mr. Nelson is clad only in a loincloth. As in the rest of the play, he keeps his body and face awkwardly contorted, approximating slides of Merrick that are projected in an early scene. But more than the contortions and halting speech, the near-nakedness serves as a constant reminder of how exposed and vulnerable Merrick was -- even after a charitable surgeon rescued him from life as a sideshow exhibit and granted him a relatively normal existence in the London Hospital.
Armand Schultz's portrayal of the charitable surgeon is layered and complex. Merrick's spirit steadily improves, but the doctor, recognizing that his patient's life is destined to be unusually short, grows emotionally and spiritually stunted by his awareness of the limitations of medicine, benevolence and even hope.
Carolyn Swift delivers a deftly realized performance as the celebrated actress, Mrs. Madge Kendal, who befriended Merrick and introduced him to London society. When she meets Merrick, Mrs. Kendal must rely on her technique as an actress to hide her discomfort, but before the scene is over, we feel her genuine affection and admiration.
The doctor and Mrs. Kendal, indeed, all of the people who become acquainted with Merrick, claim they see a reflection of their better natures in him. But earlier on, there are several references to those who see Merrick's disease as punishment for not "thinking right."
"The Elephant Man" -- and Mr. Nelson's fine performance -- demonstrates that humanity is intrinsic and individualistic, but it doesn't glorify human nature. At its best, society helped Merrick flourish; at its worst, it mobbed and nearly dismembered him. Both times, society was convinced it was thinking right.
"The Elephant Man" continues at Olney Theatre through Sept. 8; call (301) 924-3400.