An adroit, if uneven, drama

HCC players depict life story of a `freak' in `The Elephant Man'


May 10, 2001|By Arthur Laupus | Arthur Laupus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"No one with a history of back trouble should attempt the part of Merrick as contorted," writes Bernard Pomerance in a prefatory comment to his play "The Elephant Man."

Good advice, since the role of title character John Merrick is a hideously deformed "show freak" who lives in Victorian London during the latter part of the 19th century.

Under Susan G. Kramer's able direction, the student-alumni actors in the play at Howard Community College manage to bring off a stalwart, if uneven, production that captures the essence of the drama but struggles with its complexities and textures.

The play, based in part on a book written by Sir Frederick Treves in 1927, recounts the real-life story of Merrick, who suffers from a rare congenital disease, neurofibromatosis. Merrick is rescued from a freak show by Dr. Treves and is taken to a London hospital, where he finds refuge.

Staged in the intimate Theatre Outback on the HCC campus, "The Elephant Man" begins with the sound of a lone cello playing a Bach partita, hauntingly evocative for setting the mood and tone for what is to unfold.

This is followed by sounds of factory machines as Eric Moore's arresting low-key lighting fades in on a bare, three-level, thrust stage where sideshow barker Ross, played by Adam Grabau, is hustling prospective customers to see "one of humanity's aberrations." Grabau is quite comfortable in the role. His later scene with Merrick in which he tries to persuade him to return to the freak show is one of the highlights of the evening.

Michael Avolio, in the role of Dr. Treves, certainly has the spine of the character and is particularly fine in the early going when he lectures to a group of doctors about Merrick's disease. His speech pattern here is studied and slightly hesitant, typical of an authoritative academician. However, this pattern simply does not work in the later scenes that demand a more conversational and intimate tone.

Mike Coleman strikes just the right pose as John Merrick, with contorted body and face that he manages to maintain consistently throughout the evening, and captures the spirit of a pitiable human being with normal needs and aspirations. I hope he knows a good chiropractor. One note: Lessen the wheezing. It becomes tedious.

As the actress Mrs. Kendal, Donna Devilbiss has the basic essence of the character, but more sensuality and teasing would make her key scene with Merrick more layered and engrossing. Devilbiss also must be careful about dropping the ends of her sentences.

I take exception to Kramer's decision to change the role of the chief hospital administrator from a male to female. There were no female chief administrators of hospitals in Victorian England. In the play, Carr Gomm is the cynical realist; this quality is not captured by the female Claire Gomm in the performance.

In supporting roles, Sean Rowe, Vanessa Kinzey, Laura Couvillion, Christopher Bramer, Karen Barger, Jon Nelson and Roger MacDonald performed admirably.

All the actors, especially the leads, must be commended for work on their British accents, which range from upper-class British to gutter cockney. This was due, I am sure, in no small part to the talented actor, HCC faculty member and dialect coach Bruce Nelson.

The effective sets and costumes were designed and executed by Kramer, Damon Wenner, Denise Cumor and Shannon Hunt.

The play features 21 titled short scenes rather than two or three long acts, and spurns emotional response, suspense and audience identification with the characters in deference to intellectual probing.

"The Elephant Man" is not only about John Merrick's quest for belonging and assimilation into society, but also Frederick Treves' ambivalence and guilt in seeking the proper treatment.

Howard Community College Student/Alumni Productions presents "The Elephant Man" tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday in Theatre Outback. Information: 410-772-4900.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.