Before Joseph Merrick employed his one useful arm, his left, to build a model of St. Phillip's Church, he was an abused star performer in a freak show in Victorian England. His head was monstrously misshapen and he had to sleep upright at night so he was not asphyxiated in his sleep. Some famous actors on stage (Mark Hamill) and screen (John Hurt) have portrayed him, and now the role falls to Jay Sullivan in the Alley Theatre's upcoming production of Tony Award-winning The Elephant Man.
''What we're going for is an empathetic representation physically and vocally of Joseph Merrick,'' Sullivan says.''We're not trying to literally mimic what he looked and sounded like but to show enough elements of it that the audience has a sense of how difficult and painful his life was. But it is still theatrical and intelligible because it's a play. By all reports, he was nearly impossible to understand.''
Merrick is discovered by a London surgeon, Frederick Treves, who moves him to a hospital and begins to work with him, finding that the man thought to be an imbecile is actually very intelligent. Sullivan, who has a movement coach, a physical trainer and a dialect coach for the production, has been practicing at home and in his local grocery store getting around with a cane so that he can show the transformation his character goes through. ''As the play progresses, Merrick will become more physically deformed but more vocally intelligible,'' Sullivan says.
Saying he expects audience members to leave the 90-minute one-act play feeling thoughtful and introspective, Sullivan adds: ''I think the play shows us that the way we separate other people from ourselves and hold them in a frame of being 'other' has to do with our own feelings and apprehensions and insecurities and it gives us permission to make another choice and reminds us of our capacity to make another choice.''
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7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 5. 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26 to $78.
Tuesdays-Sundays. Starts: April 12. Continues through May 5, 2013