Have you seen a young man in the Kroger grocery store on West Grey, leaning heavily on a cane, using only his left arm to sift through the contents of the dairy section?
If so, you may well have spotted actor Jay Sullivan practicing for his lead role in the Alley Theatre's upcoming production of Tony Award-winning The Elephant Man.
As is usual in stage productions (and unlike the movie) the actor portraying Joseph Merrick, the Victorian-era English man with hideous deformities, doesn't operate with a prosthesis, but instead portrays Merrick using contorted movement and speech. Merrick's head was monstrously misshapen and he had to sleep upright at night so he was not asphyxiated in his sleep. He had one useful arm - his left - that he used to build a model of St. Phillip's Church.
While Merrick's speech was said to be almost unintelligible in real life, Sullivan points out that doesn't work well for a theatrical performance.
"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."
The story begins with the discovery of Merrick - an abused, star performer in a freak show - by London doctor Frederick Treves, who moves him to a hospital and begins to work with him, discovering that the man thought to be an imbecile is actually very intelligent.
Sullivan began working with a movement coach, a physical trainer and a dialect coach for the production, while still performing in A Few Good Men at the Alley. Because of his upcoming role in The Elephant Man, Sullivan was the only male actor in A Few Good Men who didn't have to/couldn't get his hair cut military style. He wore a short wig which some of the more military-minded audience members said wasn't short enough.
Meanwhile, he has been practicing his Merrick movements at home and in places like his local grocery store. "As the play progresses, Merrick will become more physically deformed but more vocally intelligible," Sullivan says.
Although he has been a guest artist several times in recent years at the Alley (Eurydice, Our Town, Peter Pan, Red), Sullivan is only in his first year as an Alley Company member. "This company of actors and directors and theater artists has created an environment where I feel more permission than I have at any other theater. I see more opportunity to grow than anywhere else," he says.
He got the part in Eurydice after his agent submitted his photo and resume to Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd who called him in for an interview. "I got one call back and then an offer to come down and play the part."
Next up was Our Town, which gave Boyd a chance to see how Sullivan would work in a whole company of actors - and whether he would get along with them. No invitation to join the company would precede that.
Peter Pan gave Sullivan the opportunity to play the character as "a sociopath," he says. "Which I thought was fascinating and exciting to play. And liberating. Also knowing that I would get to play opposite two of my favorite actors, Elizabeth Bunch and James Black again. The flying was almost incidental."
Sullivan says he's thought a lot about how someone like Joseph Merrick would be received today. "I think we would probably be more understanding or less frightened, potentially less moved by his condition because information technology we see everything all the time," Sullivan says.
"Despite the way Merrick is seen by his contemporaries, he is as much of a person inside of his disability. It emphasizes the distance between the way that he's seen and the way he imagines himself to be.
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."
The Elephant Man starts previews April 12 and opens April 17-May 5 on the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26- $78.
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