Fans of the historic Crighton Theatre in Conroe, Texas, are well-acquainted with the high quality work of its resident company, STAGE RIGHT PRODUCTIONS, all under the guidance of producers, Carolyn & Steven Wong. As a general rule, the company often produces crowd-pleasing comedies and musicals, but that is not always the case. Consider the present exception to that rule with the current run of Bernard Pomerance’s, THE ELEPHANT MAN. Winner of the 1979 Tony Award for Best Play, this dark and very serious play is about as far from musical comedy as dramatic theatre can take us. But that fact did not dissuade the show’s courageous director, Craig Campobella, from taking on the task with his simply stated goal of creating a work of art that is, “…hopefully, worthwhile for our community.”
The disturbing plot is based on the sad but true story of Joseph Merrick. In this play he is named John Merrick (Caleb Glass), a man who lived during England’s Victorian period, and was cursed with a gruesomely disfigured body.
As the play opens we find him being treated like some bizarre exhibit, and cruelly exploited as “The Elephant Man,” by his avaricious manager, Ross (Michael Raabe), who happily charges admission to curious onlookers who wish to view the pitiful soul trapped in such a wretched body. Raabe, by the way, gives an explosive, sometimes terrifying performance with the booming voice of some frightening Dickensian carnival barker.
Meanwhile, in a separate setting, we meet two medical professionals at London Hospital, a newly appointed young surgeon named Frederick Treves (Brian Heaton), and his new supervisor there, the hospital administrator, Carr-Gomm (Reid Self). Treves, learning of Merrick’s disturbing condition, brings him to the hospital for further investigation. While Merrick’s physical deformities are largely obscured by a shroud-like costume, only the hideously distorted face is visible to the audience. But conversations of the doctors reveal the horrifying details of an emotionless face, skin the texture of brown cauliflower, repulsive sacs of flesh hanging from the front and back of the body, and a head so enormous that Merrick must sleep sitting up. Nurse Sandwich (Marilyn Moore) is hired to attend to Merrick, but one look at his deformities sends her fleeing. Even in the hospital Merrick is put on display during lectures to other physicians, but a letter to The Times arouses both public sympathy and charity sufficient to create a fund for Merrick to be housed at the hospital for the remainder of his lifetime. He is given further comfort by the frequent visits of pious clergyman, Bishop How (Joshua Merillat), who endeavors to give Merrick spiritual guidance. Then Merrick is visited by Mrs. Kendal (Patrice Kentimenos), a kindly actress who stuns him by being the first woman to ever extend her hand in greeting. He shocks her by hoping that she might extend him more, but details of that encounter might give too much away. Nevertheless, Kendal brings some of her sympathetic and aristocratic friends to meet him. They are often surprised by his warmth and knowledge, and in one poignant scene the various visitors step forward singly to utter moments of self-examination, as they try to look at their own lives in relation to Merrick’s troubled circumstances. Clearly, the author is asking us to do the same.
It should be mentioned that Mr. Heaton, Mr. Self and Mr. Glass all displayed enviable skill as actors when passionately delivering several very lengthy monologues. Without going into too much detail on a production that serious local theatergoers may want to experience for themselves, it is important to note this is a very dark theater piece, and that darkness extends to storyline, sets (designer, Deanie Harmon Boy), lighting (Jim Murph), Victorian costumes (Denise Debold), hair designs by Adam Isbell, and mood (somber musical interludes). Gloomy blackness is everywhere, but there is an amusing break in the tension with the unusual freak show performance of the three singing Pinheads (Cameron Collins, Emili Stowe, Hannah Gilchriest). Their uniquely bizarre costumes and the make-up designs of Mr. Raabe, nicely accent their weird song, “We Are the Queens of the Congo.”
A number of minor supporting players add to the play’s success, and the cast summaries listed in the program had a notable comment from the talented 18 year-old Mr. Glass, who had so bravely accepted the title role in this complex piece of theatre. He expressed his gratitude to both director and cast for their support as he took on the, “…fantastic challenge that is THE ELEPHANT MAN.” Job well done by all concerned!
“The Elephant Man,” continues thru April 29th at Conroe’s Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main. Performances are 8pm Friday & Saturday, with a Sunday matinee at 2pm. For tickets and information call (936) 441-7469 or visit the website at http://www.stage-right.org/.