Actor Bruce Nelson considers himself a clown -- on and off the stage -- whose life's ambition has always been to make people laugh.
But as the deformed John Merrick in the current Olney production of "The Elephant Man," Nelson is making the audience cry.
Immersed in the character of Merrick (a victim of neurofibromatosis, a disfiguring disease), this skilled young performer manages to keep his body painfully contorted, one arm limp at his side. His mouth is so twisted speech comes haltingly and hard.
Following the tradition of the play by Bernard Pomerance, Nelson wears no makeup to convey the cauliflowered skin and large growths that afflicted Merrick, who lived in England during the late 19th century.
He was "a gentle and insightful soul," Nelson said. "He was manipulated into appearing in freak shows until a certain Dr. Frederick Treves came to the rescue. Dr. Treves used him as an object of research but protected and cared for him. In time Merrick became the popular pet of the nobility."
The son of an Army dentist, the 25-year-old actor spent the first 20 years of his life in Columbia, where he attended Wilde Lake High School. In 1988 he earned his degree in theater arts from Towson State.
"I got my first taste of theater in high school," he said, "when I was in a production of 'Grease.' In regular life I am the guy who tells jokes and breaks the tension, the fun-loving type. But I discovered people actually laughed at me on stage, too. I knew then I wanted to commit to the acting craft full time."
Nelson's area credits include performances with the Splitting Image Theatre Company and Theatricks, a youth theater company based in Frederick. He is making his Olney debut with "The Elephant Man" and will be awarded an Equity card at the conclusion of the run of the play Sunday night.
He found inspiration for the Merrick role by watching Daniel Day Lewis in the film "My Left Foot" and researching books. "It was physically challenging," said Nelson. "Initially my body would hurt. As I grew with the role, my body began to remember and accommodate me as much as Merrick's body had to accommodate his grotesqueness."
Tickets are still available for "The Elephant Man," which runs through Sept. 8 at the Olney Theatre. Show times: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m.; Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $16 to $21. For more information call the Olney Theatre Box Office at 924-3400.