Tuesday, November 19, 2013


vcm_s_kf_m160_120x160By Ruth Ross

If your only experience with The Elephant Man is the 1980's film wherein John Hurt appears in grotesque full body make-up, you will be taken aback by the handsome physique of Dale Monroe as John Merrick (aka The Elephant Man) in Chester Theatre Group's elegant, thoughtful and poignant production of the Bernard Pomerance play. On stage, one sees a handsome young man, holding his body in an awkward pose, walking with a shuffle and speaking slowly, to portray a misshapen, albeit very human, being. Indeed, Merrick’s witty and wise pronouncements reveal a keen intellect and a level of self-awareness that comes only later to those around him.

Dale Monroe of Morristown as John Merrick."The Elephant Man" of the eponymous play is John Merrick, an Englishman with severe deformities who was exhibited as a human curiosity. After being "rescued" by a benevolent doctor, he went to live at the London Hospital where he became well known in London society. Although his condition was incurable, Merrick was allowed to stay at the hospital for the remainder of his life. Treves visited him daily, and the pair developed quite a close friendship. Merrick also received visits from the wealthy ladies and gentlemen of London society, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales

With their consistent and veddy appropriate British accents, director Stephen Catron's talented cast give us a sense of place and convey the confusion swirling around the freakish “elephant man.” Are the well-meaning doctors as guilty of exploiting the man for their own purposes as the carnival barker from whose clutches they rescue him? Has all they’ve done “for his own good” fashioned him into a mirror of their own values and insecurities instead of into an individual with hopes, dreams and needs of his own?

Monroe (above) is superb as Merrick, handsome and the possessor of wise, wounded eyes that bespeak a sadness almost too much to bear, making Merrick’s psychic pain palpable. He’s so deep into the character that he never breaks posture as he moves from place to place.

clip_image002As his “savior,” Dr. Frederick Treves, Frank Bläuer, (right) is the very model of Victorian rectitude, which makes his breakdown late in the play very moving. Roger Dumpert's Carr Gomm, director of the London Hospital where Merrick lives supported by monies donated by the public, projects the smarminess of a man who’s not above using the poor creature to raise funds for his own institution, going so far as to permit upper class blokes to stop by for a chat and a look-see while sacking a lowly attendant for doing the same thing! And Ruth Morley (below) is a treasure in the role of Mrs. Kendal, the aging actress who comes to meet Merrick out of curiosity at Treves’ behest that Merrick get to know a member of the opposite sex in his quest to become “normal.” Morley clip_image002[1]gives Mrs. Kendal a warmth and greatness of heart that is evident as she converses with him, recognizes the beautiful human being behind the grotesque mask and, perhaps, falls a bit in love with him. She, out of all those people around Merrick, is the most genuine and caring, and we really feel for her when Treves sends her away.

Kevern Cameron  does a fine job as Ross the carnival barker who first exploits Merrick; William Horwitz is appropriately officious as the Anglican bishop who exploits him in the name of religion. Other standouts in supporting roles are Paul Rivellese (Will, a hospital porter) and Kathy Mierisch (a nurse and Princess Alexandra). Pianist Zachary Catron provides superb (and appropriate) musical accompaniment.

Director Catron has designed a simple set capable of supporting the many scene changes in the play, yet never overpowering the actors. On the small Chester Theatre playing area, these changes are effected smoothly, mostly by moving furniture or replacing the myriad of period props gathered by Peg Hill. Scaramouche Costumes provide further authenticity to the period of 1880s' London. My only quibble is with the lighting, which has only two settings: bright and off. It would have been better to highlight the characters, even when they are not involved in the action of the scene. Merrick could be lit with particular luminosity appropriate for this very special human being.

Chester Theatre Group's production of The Elephant Man will provide fodder for post-play discussion for days afterwards. Once again, this little theater showcases thought-provoking drama performed by talented actors right here in our own back yard! The company is to be commended for tackling this difficult play and giving it a production that places us close to the action and enhances our involvement with an unusual human being.

This production reminds us that the essence of drama is character and conflict and provides those in spades. Don’t miss The Elephant Man in Chester. And think about taking your teenagers: the subject of this play is provocative and interesting enough to spark a conversation with said teen and might move him or her want to know more about John Merrick. Too, it might make your child a life-long theatergoer . . . and there’s nothing shabby about that!

The Elephant Man will be performed at the Black River Playhouse on the corner of Grove and Maple Streets in Chester through November 30. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday, November 24, at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call 908.979.7304 or visit online.