Theater Review: The Elephant Man

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The beautifully staged drama tells a deeply human story, striking a powerful emotional chord.

Studio Tenn presents:
The Elephant Man (Feb. 16- 26; Ages 12 & older)
Jamison Theater at The Factory
230 Franklin Road, Franklin
615-541-8200 • studiotenn.com
Show times: Fri 7 p.m., Sat 2 & 7 p.m., Sun 2 p.m.
Tickets: $30 – $85

It’s tremendous when a theater company takes risks that pay off, and that’s exactly what Studio Tenn does with its stunning production of The Elephant Man. Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play made its Broadway debut in 1979 and was most recently produced in 2014 with Bradley Cooper. The play requires a great amount of physical dexterity from its leading man. A successful mounting also requires a solid director leading the cast into a deep emotional well. Studio Tenn nails it.

The Elephant Man is based on the real life of Joseph Merrick (aka John), a man born in 1862 with severe deformities who was an exhibit in the freak show circuit as “The Elephant Man.” 

Bringing “The Elephant Man” to Life On Stage

Portraying the Elephant Man is no easy task since no prosthetics or makeup are in place. Instead, the actor must convey Merrick’s deformities through intense physicality, allowing the audience to imagine the character’s appearance.

Taylor Novak makes his Studio Tenn debut in the lead role of John Merrick, and it’ a powerful one. In a mesmerizing turn on center stage at the start of the play, Novak contorts his face and body to fit the skeletal description of Merrick’s disfigurment. It appears as though he’s dislocating his shoulder and hip to become the character. In a later scene, a projection of slides against the curtain shows the audience how the real-life Merrick looked.

Throughout the show, Novak’s warped body hobbles across the stage with use of a cane. His twisted face remains displaced through labored breathing and speaking from the side of his mouth.

The Human Story

At the beginning of the play, carnival barker Ross (Matthew Carlton) refers to Merrick as an exotic creature who “exposes himself to crowds who gape and yawp.” Shortly thereafter, the young surgeon Frederick Treves (Brent Maddox) transports Merrick from sideshow squalor to the more gentile environment of the London Hospital. In a private suite, courtesy of a local charity, Merrick spends the remainder of his life away from public scrutiny.

It’s within this setting that we get to see the real Merrick and his surprising intellect. In fact, one of the more poignant scenes features a parade of people including Treves, the famous actress Mrs. Kendal (Megan Murphy Chambers), hospital head Carr Gomm (Conrad John Schuck), members of elite society and a bishop declaring how much Merrick is “like me.”

Novak’s masterful portrayal is impressive. He does an exemplary job of endearing his character to the audience in dramatic scenes along with humorous ones. The friendship and conversations Merrick has with Treves transforms the perspective of him from human oddity to human being. At one point, Merrick ponders the size of his large head … “perhaps it’s so big because it’s so full of dreams.” Consequently, he also says, “Before I spoke with people, I did not think of all these things, because there was no one to bother to think them for. Now, things just come out of my mouth which are true.” Those truths include rebukes of imperial Britain.

Psychological Insight

Merrick’s friendship with Mrs. Kendal is the pivotal one in the drama. Chambers plays her character with a fantastic approach that’s empathetic and genuine. It is she who discovers Merrick’s knack for deep thought, and it’s through her response that we discover most of the psychological insight within the show.

Merrick’s discussions about everything from Romeo and Juliet to spirituality strike a deep emotional chord. Novak’s delivery brings the audience to a place of compassion. Furthermore, it truly gives one the perspective of how many things in life we “normal” folk easily take for granted. Maddox beautifully drives that point home with his character’s emotional complexity.

While many themes exist within The Elephant Man, perhaps the most powerful is the most simple — there’s a whole lot more to a human being deep down than what we often see, and judge, at the surface level.

Studio Tenn certainly does an outstanding job telling this deeply human story.

 

Chad Young is the managing editor and arts/entertainment editor for this publication.

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