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'Elephant Man' stirs

by Sandra Hosking
| November 5, 2010 9:00 PM

Lake City Playhouse follows the glamour of the musical "Evita" with a more reflective and stirring drama, "The Elephant Man" by Bernard Pomerance.

"Elephant Man" is based on the true story of Joseph "John" Merrick, an Englishman who suffered from startling deformities. Set in the late 19th Century, the play explores Merrick's life and his relationship with his benevolent doctor, Frederick Treves. While the story might be old, the 1979 script has a modern tone and is cinematic in structure.

Christopher Lamb plays the rueful Merrick sincerely, though not pathetically. His affliction is left to the audience's imagination; however, Lamb is able to contort his face and body in odd positions. It isn't until a dream sequence in the second act, when Merrick stands erect and speaks eloquently, does one realize how much skill it takes to maintain those positions. And Lamb's portrayal is so intelligently innocent that it is heart rendering when he is rejected and abused.

Treves, played convincingly by the theater's Executive Artistic Director George Green, is somewhat conflicted. His compassion motivates him to pull Merrick out of a sideshow and provide a home for him at the London Hospital, but he is not perfect. The veil is torn when Treves catches Merrick looking at a half-dressed woman. "Are you not ashamed? Do you know what you are?" he shouts. It is the only time Treves makes Merrick feel less than human. The moment is moving, but might have more impact if the audience could see Treves' face.

The doctor says several times that he believes in science rather than religion and is irked when Merrick looks to the church. During a pivotal scene in the second act, Treves debates faith with Bishop How (Daniel Cooper), the man to whom Merrick looks for spiritual guidance.

Somehow, the bishop's quiet arguments vex him enough that he breaks down and collapses into the clergyman's arms. The buildup to this moment might be stronger if both men would defend their positions with equal conviction.

"The Elephant Man's" dark story is punctuated by bits of intelligent, and sometimes satirical, humor. Anne Lillian Mitchell plays Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends Merrick, with grace and wit. Treves warns her, "Women are not quite real to him-more creatures of imagination."

She quips, "Then he is already like other men."

Merrick proves he is her intellectual equal, daring to propose that if Romeo had really loved Juliet, he would've done more to revive her than sticking a mirror under her nose.

Bill Caisley embodies the hospital administrator, Carr Gomm, so well and so naturally it seems he belongs to the play.

Overall, director Marina Kalani manages to bring out the nuances of the play, from the humorous moments to the saddest events. The simplicity of the set and staging allow the lovely language of the script and story to shine.

The set design by Green and Dan Heggem is a simple backdrop of a circus tent with panels of red and cream. Platforms on different levels represent the contrast between high society and Merrick's lowly station, and allow Treves to move between the two.

Heggem's lighting design is particularly effective. For example, Merrick's silhouette is seen by the audience before he is. In another scene, two "normal" characters speak while the Elephant Man is in the background, bathed in cool blue light - a separation between his existence and theirs.

As with "Evita," Jamie Russell's costumes are period appropriate and visually pleasing. In the words of the carnival barker Ross, "Step in and see" ... for just a bit more than a tuppence. "Elephant Man" runs through Nov. 14.

Sandra Hosking, a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene area college instructor and freelance journalist, is a longtime member of the theater community and playwright whose works have been performed across the U.S. and internationally.

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