- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Have you seen ‘Elephant Man’ yet?” someone asked at a Sunday matinee of another show. “The lighting’s great.”

That’s like suggesting you go to a Caravaggio exhibit because the restrooms are clean. Not to detract from Charlie Morrison’s striking lighting design — which pours slanted, steel-rod-like rays of light onto the stage — but more than wattage illuminates Olney Theatre Center’s production, masterfully directed by Jim Petosa.

For starters, there’s Scott Fortier’s towering portrayal of John Merrick, a real-life Victorian-era figure with tremendous physical deformities who went from sideshow attraction to sought-after member of London’s most exclusive social circles. Rescued from a sordid carnival life by Dr. Frederick Treves (Christopher Lane), Merrick lived out the rest of his short life protected and respected in a London hospital and was visited by many famous people, among them the actress Mrs. Kendal (Valerie Leonard) and Princess Alexandra (Barbara Pinolini).

One could argue that Merrick traded in a filthy cage for a well-appointed one because under Treves, he was still examined like a medical curiosity, and at least the initial visits by the beau monde were provoked by purposes more puerile than wanting to be in the company of a sensitive, artistic soul. However, “The Elephant Man” suggests that Treves wished for “normality” for Merrick and wanted to pack as much experience and sensation as possible into the six years he lived in the hospital.

The astonishing thing is how Merrick became absolutely himself during this time, while meeting him changed everyone else. As Treves observes, people saw a monster when they first looked upon this man and then saw a mirror that reflected back the finer qualities they admired in themselves.

Mr. Fortier, artistic director of Catalyst Theatre — where this production originated before moving to Olney — is a considerable talent, molding his body into Merrick’s twisted contours as Treves describes his various afflictions. The frozen arm, the tilted head and dragging gait are all remarkable, but it’s the voice that gets you — the strangulated speech that contains such wit and feeling if you listen closely for its peculiar music. There is also the arresting grace of his “good” appendage, which resembles an arm from a Greek statue soldered onto a sculpture by Giacometti.

Other outstanding performances enhance Mr. Fortier’s contribution to the play, starting with Miss Leonard’s sublimely theatrical turn as the diva Mrs. Kendal.

Even in private, her Mrs. Kendal plays to the audience, except in the scene where she lets her guard down and disrobes in front of Merrick and the two are suspended in a breathtaking moment of intimacy and mutual trust.

James Slaughter is also solid in a variety of roles, especially as the genially cynical Carr Gomm. James Konicek makes a strong impression running the gamut from a compassionate Bishop to a seedy, craven showman. Christopher Lane has been off the boards for two years, and though he has the technical aspects of his character nailed down, the emotional and conscience-ridden side of Treves remains largely unmined.

The other starring role in “The Elephant Man” is Jon Savage’s set, a modern amalgam of mirrors, screens and black and reflective surfaces that resembles the inside of a magician’s box. We are forced to confront what is real and what is illusion in this sleek, almost floating space. The air of cinematic mystery is furthered by an oboist (Martha Goldstein) seated at the side of the stage, improvising a noirish film score as she watches what occurs onstage. The only vestige of Victoriana is in Kathleen Geldard’s costumes, bedecked with the concealing and revealing fripperies of the era.

Perhaps the person’s comment about “The Elephant Man” is not so far off the mark after all. Go for the lighting. Stay for the acting.

***

WHAT: “The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 18.

TICKETS: $10

PHONE: 301/924-3400MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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