It's a little strange to watch Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man today. The play was a hit on Broadway in 1979, was later adapted for television, and has since passed through 20 years of regional and community theater productions. The story on which it is based--that of the famously deformed John Merrick--also inspired a popular film (starring John Hurt) and numerous TV specials.
According to Ginevra Bull, artistic director of Synapse Productions, the company renders "distinctive productions of classic theater." This is an interesting way to view The Elephant Man, which seems much less shattering the second (or seventieth) time around. When the play was first produced, the American hero was changing from the oppressed individual of the '70s to the self-promoting schmuck of the '80s. Pomerance shrewdly conflated the two, making his Elephant Man both an outsider and a savvy manipulator.
"Each one of us sees in him a part of ourselves, yet he is none of us," remarks the deadpan Dr. Frederick Treves (Tony Ward) of his ward Merrick, who wins over the clergy and royalty to become a cause célèbre and a social darling. Here is the darker side to the play; there is a Machiavellian vein to Merrick that turns our Oscar-lavishing view of the disabled on its ear. I wish this theme had been explored in the current Synapse production at the Connelly Theatre. Unfortunately, this revival abandons much of what is difficult in favor of a misplaced reverence.
For example, in the challenging title role, Timothy McCracken gives a dexterous but ultimately tame performance. It's hard to say whether it is the famous previous versions of the Merrick tale or the strict adherence to accents which causes so many of the actors' choices here to veer towards the clichéd. Director David Travis hands us no surprises, and the ensemble work is not up to par. Even Jamie Jones as Merrick's formula love interest, who performs with control and subtlety, is hampered by the rather simple choices of Ward and McCracken as (respectively) an emotionally constipated Englishman and a simple victim.
There is one pleasant surprise here: the evocative, actor-friendly set design of Adrian W. Jones beautifully capitalizes on the cavernous stage of the Connelly. Jones draws out the medical metaphor of the play in this antiseptic, institutional design, which features a small, high window and streaked walls. The set is stark enough to represent a Victorian hospital, yet it somehow evokes a present-day Ikea feeling as well. It gives the performance a chance to make a statement, any statement--but that never really seems to happen.
The treatment of this passable play as a classic has led to a "correct" but less-than-gripping production. What is wonderful here is not new, and what little is new is not wonderful. This is a big trap for a company committed to restaging "classic" plays. Synapse must realize that classics are classics because they can, and must, be rendered in new and vital ways.