Strapping, handsome and near naked, actor Jay Sullivan is sculpted under the white hot light of a medical school lecture hall. His immense and gruesome physical deformities, like some sort of human nightmare, are described in scientific, unemotional detail by Treves, a Victorian surgeon and teacher (Jeffrey Bean). As each more horrible particular is mentioned -- gargantuan lumpy head; bony growths; pendulous flesh; fin-like hand; misshaped, useless leg; a face incapable of showing emotion except for tears -- Mr. Sullivan obliges. His head tilts off kilter, too heavy to hold upright, one shoulder rises, his arm withers, his hip turns inward, his foot bends backward, his back crooks.
In a most magical form of coup de theatre, frightening in its simplicity, Joseph Merrick, the infamous "Elephant Man," stands before us. Period photographs of Merrick's actual body project on the background, but what we react to is Sullivan's beauty transformed. Throughout the play, we never forget those dreadful images of the real Merrick, but we lose our hearts because of the sublime transmutation from Sullivan. When Merrick speaks, Sullivan emits a tiny bark beforehand, as if the very act is painful and ill-formed. In the bath, given to alleviate the stench from his calciferous skin condition, Sullivan reclines stiffly, his right arm dangled at an odd angle, his face a mask. He can't relax, he can barely move. But inside, he sings.
Bernard Pomerance's 1979 Tony Award-winning Best Play relishes in this dichotomy between the actor playing Merrick, always portrayed by a robust young man, and our imaginations of what Merrick was in the flesh. Every indignity, every scream of recoil, every beating he received during his short Dickensian life -- Merrick died, 27, in 1890 -- is doubly felt when delivered to one so lovely. It certainly drives home the author's point that beauty is not the mirror of the soul, for Merrick possessed a stomach-churning facade but the most sensitive interior. He becomes the looking glass for the Victorian age, whose panoply of characters see in him what they want the world to see in them.
Based upon Treves's 1923 best-selling and somewhat hazy The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences as well as anthropologist Ashley Montagu's The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971), which set Treves's faulty history in truer context -- both authors, though, got Merrick's name wrong, calling him "John" instead of "Joseph" -- playwright Pomerance (who perpetuates the inaccurate "John") paints a lively historical perspective.
Although he beats home the era's hypocrisy with his own bony fist, Pomerance sketches Merrick's strange-but-true story with broad, expressionistic strokes that director Gregory Boyd expands exponentially. The whole production is overlaid with enough Grand Guignol freak-show effects for a lifetime -- thumping percussion, spectral bells, hospital orderlies dressed as Hazmat butchers -- but Boyd also supplies the play with the fluidity of a dream, and we can't fault him for his guidance of Sullivan's superb interpretation.
The cast, Alley veterans all, have the requisite polish and nuance we expect. Sullivan is beyond reproach, his own master class in physical acting, and he's matched by Bean's prudish yet empathetic Treves. Without intermission, at mid-point the play begins to veer unsteadily toward Treves and his own personal demons. While his stricken conscience over "standards," heart and medical objectivity wounds him deeply, his character takes on more weight than necessary, turning him into someone like the soul-searching psychiatrist Dysart from Equus, who wears out his welcome halfway through that play. Bean, a Houston treasure, knows just how to give Treves that edge of modernity while skating squarely through the Victorian age.
Also appealing, both as character and actress, is Elizabeth Bunch as Mrs. Kendal, the theatrical diva who befriends Merrick and gives him, without reproach, the only gift he truly wants. The other roles are ably ennobled by Todd Waite as the officious, obtuse head of the hospital where Merrick is housed; James Belcher as Merrick's vicious sideshow manager and, later, a giddy bishop; Melissa Pritchett as a sister of mercy without any; Emily Neves as chilly Princess Alexandra; and James Black, Ellen Dyer and Rebekah Stevens in multiple roles.
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While the costumes from Fabio Toblini shimmer of silk, bustles and furbelows, and the lighting and sound design from Christopher Akerlind and John Gromada are appropriately creepy and precise, the scenic design from Riccardo Hernandez is off. A bizarre mishmash of riveted metallic panels, concentric circles on the stage floor, all encircled by makeup mirror lightbulbs, is neither inventive steampunk nor actual re-creation. It's nowhere and doesn't begin to enhance the play's foggy moodiness.
You know what they say about judging a book by its cover. The sad life of Joseph Merrick, which sparkled with a bit of sunshine near the end, has been a fascinating read ever since his story was told in the London Times. In an incandescent performance, Mr. Sullivan makes each page of Merrick's life burst into flame, and us into tears.
The Elephant Man haunts through May 5 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. Tickets start at $26.