Olney offers commendable 'Elephant Man'


August 20, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

Don't be put off by the first 10 minutes of the Olney Theater production of ''The Elephant Man.'' For that much time, the presentation is loud and threatening, often a sign that we are in for more noise than entertainment.

But, fortunately, the volume comes down. The yelling ends as quickly as it begins, and once it's over, this particular ''Elephant Man'' is a commendable interpretation of a most interesting play.

The script has its faults. In the second act, Sir Frederick Treves, the surgeon who rescues the title character from life as a sideshow attraction, goes on and on and says very little.

We know that he is trying to say that life is unjust, that nature can play hideous tricks on the human being. But he is poetic to a fault. Like some philosophers, he has difficulty coming to the point, and when the man to whom he is saying all this, says, ''I don't know what you mean,'' we are in total agreement with him.

Elsewhere, however, ''The Elephant Man,'' written by Bernard Pomerance, is as fascinating as it was when it was first presented on Broadway in 1978. A year before that, it had opened in London.

The play enjoyed popularity in both countries. Philip Anglim and David Bowie were among the actors who played the lead on stage.

The drama is based on the life of John Merrick, who was born in Leicester, England, in 1862. A victim of neurofibromatosis, a disease that deforms, he was sent to a workhouse at the age of 3.

He left there to become a sideshow freak. In Belgium, he was discovered by Treves, who invited Merrick to live in the London Hospital at Whitechapel where he was protected from the curious and where he became an attraction to members of London society, some of whom may have been more curious than concerned.

In the play, one visitor is an actress who seems to have genuine compassion for Merrick. She also seems to enjoy his company. Behind the grotesqueries is a very bright man.

Bruce R. Nelson plays Merrick in the Olney production, and he is superb. Everything about this performance works. Equally good is Carolyn Swift as the actress.

Almost as good are James Slaughter as the hospital administrator, Armand Schultz, as Treves, and John Neville-Andrews, Helen Hedman and Bill Grimmette in a variety of roles.

''The Elephant Man'' will continue at the Olney through Sept. 8.

''The Elephant Man''

*** The true story of John Merrick, who was afflicted with neurofibromatosis, a condition that deforms the victim.

CAST: Armand Schultz, James Slaughter, Bill Grimmette, Bruce R. Nelson, John Neville-Andrews, Helen Hedman, Carolyn Swift

DIRECTOR: Jim Petosa

RUNNING TIME: Two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

TICKETS: (301) 924-3400

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