The Elephant Man and The Other Place
What are the limits of caring and healing? Are doctors sometimes as powerless as their patients? Two provocative plays — "The Elephant Man," in a New Repertory Theatre revival at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, and "The Other Place," in an area premiere by Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theatre at the Central Square Theatre — look at these questions and their protagonists with very different approaches and results. While the former seems more of a finished work than the latter, both stagings feature strong lead performances and high caliber design.
"The Elephant Man," a Tony Award-winning 1979 Bernard Pomerance play, examines the fascinatingly spirited if painfully short life of Joseph Carey Merrick (1862-1890), a physically deformed but intellectually healthy Englishman. Suffering from what some modern theorists label a combination of neurofibromatosis and Proteus Syndrome, Merrick possessed a severely oversized head and thick lumpy skin like that of an elephant (a description found in an 1884 Merrick autobiographical pamphlet). Willing to exhibit himself as a curiosity to earn a living, he contacted a showman named Sam Torr, who found managers for him who gave him the title name.
After noted Dr. Frederick Treves saw Merrick, he began to study him and eventually treated and attended to him at London Hospital, where hospital committee chairman Francis Carr Gomm secured him a hospital home for life. Celebrities like Alexandra, Princess of Wales, visited the creative patient, who made card models of cathedrals. After four years of sleeping sitting up, Merrick apparently tried to lie down, with asphyxia resulting. Pomerance effectively presents this tumultuous odyssey from exhibited, often reviled curiosity to attend if incurable patient —though both playwright and Treves refer to Merrick incorrectly as John rather than Joseph.
Unlike the grim but powerful black and white David Lynch film of the same name, the play calls on the actor playing Merrick to suggest his deformity through disjointed movement of his head and one bad arm and lame walking. While some theatergoers may prefer the actual representation of the film, the play may be calling on audiences to follow a line from an Isaac Watts poem with which Merrick often ended letters —namely, "I would be measured by the soul." Theatergoers hear a vivid description of the deformity in the play but Merrick’s soul shines through his conversation with Treves and visitors and the card models that demonstrate the beauty of his mind and spirit.
New Rep out artistic director Jim Petosa has given that demonstration good care at the Arsenal Center. Gifted Tim Spears combines grace, frustration, sadness and nobility as Merrick. His carefully modulated movement and speech are in striking contrast to his purposely frenetic and emotionally expansive performance as Mozart in New Rep’s remarkable last season revival of "Amadeus." Michael Kaye brings a good balance of authority, caring and professional satisfaction as Treves. He also does well conveying the surgeon-teacher’s self- doubts as Merrick’s condition worsens, though Pomerance could have developed Treves’ inner conflict more fully to keep it from seeming an interesting afterthought. Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Kendal —who may have actually visited Merrick –captures the charm and the theatricality of this acclaimed actress in what are arguably the play and production’s finest moments. Leonard catches both the humor and the pathos as Kendal cultivates Merrick’s romantic longings. Out actor Russell Garrett has the right blend of pragmatism and integrity as Carr Gomm, and Joel Colodner makes a properly manipulative and later wretched show manager as Ross.
Jon Savage evokes the toughness of Merrick’s life and fortunes in a strikingly stark set and challenges the audience with reflective mirrors that call their own feelings into question. Daniel MacLean Wagner complements Merrick’s dark story with richly shaded lighting, and Oboist Louis Toth punctuates it with reflective musical passages from sound designer David Reiffel.
Merrick is first and foremost a man and not an animal. New Rep’s timely and handsome revival celebrates that humanity and calls on theatergoers to embrace it.
The Elephant Man, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through September 29. 617-923-8487 or newrep.org
"Physician, heal thyself" is a well — known axiom, one that the lead character of the intriguing play "The Other Place" may be carrying to extremes. Juliana Smithton is trying to heal her personal as well as professional life throughout Sharr White’s deliberately mysterious drama. The famed fictional 52-year-old neurologist claims that her husband wants to leave her and her estranged daughter has long-standing issues with her. Could oncologist husband Ian actually be trying to help her rather than divorce her? Is her daughter trying to get in touch with her from a distance? Could the treatment about which Juliana lectures at scientific conferences be not only a blockbuster protein therapy but also a potential cure for her own mental distress?
White cleverly has the audience trying to piece together clues and separate reality from illusion along with Juliana herself. Eventually confusions and mysteries are resolved, including a curious woman in a yellow swimsuit that Juliana sees sitting with conference participants. Under Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s taut direction, much of this audience detective work and Juliana’s own strange narrative proves quite involving —largely due to Deborah Wise’s sublime performance as the tormented neurologist. Wise is grippingly conflicted, so much so that she somewhat compensates for abruptly optimist moments near the end of the play.
David DeBeck has all of Ian’s caring and concern. Angie Jepson makes smooth character changes playing investigating Dr. Cindy Teller, Laurel and a clueless woman at Juliana’s formerly cherished ‘other place’ on Cape Cod. Jaime Carrillo is equally effective as controversial postdoc scientist Richard and other male characters. Matching Wise’s rich portrayal are Chris Brusberg’s smartly evolving lighting and John Oluwole ADEkoje’s brilliant projections of science slides and outdoor scenes, which parallel Juliana’s own quick mental odysseys.
"The Other Place" may not ultimately reach a cathartic destination for theatergoers, but Wise’s superb work makes this thoughtful Nora and Underground Railway collaboration worth a trip.
Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater, Central Square Theatre. Cambridge, through October 6. 617-576-9278 or centralsquaretheatre.org