One of the hazards of dramatizing the life of Joseph Merrick (in The Elephant Man) is doing justice to his predicament without stumbling into bathos. In 1977, Bernard Pomerance achieved just that. Though intelligent, spiritually avid and articulate, Merrick was burdened with a profoundly disfiguring (and disabling) disease that brought out the worst in others. Far worse than the symptoms of Merrick’s pathology was the abuse heaped upon him; whether he was being put on display as a freak of nature, or beaten by strangers overcome with revulsion. Fortunately for Merrick, he is discovered by Dr. Frederick Treves, who temporarily rescues him for the sake of medical exploration. While Treves is certainly not indifferent to Merrick’s suffering, it is only after Carr Gomm’s (his superior) intervention that he offers Merrick permanent refuge from a life filled with pain and degradation.
Pomerance is positively ingenious in his strategy to avoid pity or exploiting a premise already loaded with excruciation. Merrick has a positively dry, wry wit, that permits him to challenge the best intentions of his benefactors, without seeming ungrateful or petulant. None of the characters seem beatific or lofty, which somehow makes Merrick’s groping for answers and unvarnished humanity all the more touching. Sometimes he seems more like a precocious boy or visitor from Neptune. Treves never comes off as saint or savior, which makes his friendship with Merrick palpable and completely believable. His love for Merrick is utterly convincing because he never once uses the word. Pomerance has composed dialogue that amounts to understated lyricism, a kind of plain, sly poetry that cuts right into you.
L.I.P. Service’s production of The Elephant Man features outstanding performances by Jason Leyva (Joseph Merrick) Pat Watson (Frederick Treves) and Sara Lovett (Mrs. Kendall). One can only imagine the stress of taking on such an emotional drama, though Pomerance provides casual levity to alleviate the dark and sorrowful shadows lurking in the content. It must be very difficult to navigate this narrative with authenticity and clarity while striking the perfect tone. Merrick’s tumultuous struggles were often positively wrenching, so tone here is crucial. Clearly director Shawn Gann was striving to capture this elusive, delicate sparrow, and the results are quite effective and memorable.
L.I.P. Service Productions presents The Elephant Man, playing September 29th -October 15th, 2016. The Firehouse Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmer’s Branch, Texas 75234. 817-689-6461. www.lipserviceproductions.info