Based on the true-life story of a horribly disfigured man who overcame personal adversity and became a celebrated part of Victorian London society, ‘The Elephant Man’ is first up on the Brainerd Community Theatre (BCT) season of plays. Performances begin on Sept. 27 and continue through the 29th, resuming for three more shows October 2-4. All curtain times are 7:30 p.m. in the Chalberg Theatre on the Brainerd campus of Central Lakes College.
Bernard Pomerance’s drama premiered in London in 1977 before moving to Broadway for a two year run beginning in 1979. The play has since been revived in two celebrated productions, once in 2002 and again in 2014-15. Pomerance’s work won the Tony Award for Best Play when it debuted on Broadway, and both significant revivals were nominated as Best Revivals. Actors who’ve portrayed John Merrick, the title character, have included Philip Anglim (who originated the role on Broadway), David Bowie, Mark Hamill, Billy Crudup, and most recently, Bradley Cooper.
A film version of Merrick’s story, also bearing the title ‘The Elephant Man,’ was released in 1980. It was directed by David Lynch and starred John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, and John Gielgud.
Director Patrick Spradlin spoke of the play and its production in a news release.
“I’ve had this play on my proverbial bucket list for some time,” he said. “It is a tremendously moving true story of a man facing incredible adversity with courage, dignity, and grace even though nearly all around him thought him incapable of such traits.”
The story of Merrick (real name Joseph, but referred to as John in both the play and the film) is nearly unbelievable. Born as a normal child, he began to develop abnormal features early in life until he mutated into a person with an enormously large head, unusable right arm, bone deformities that affected his speech and ability to walk, and large sacs of skin hanging from his body.
“The film version used extensive prosthetic makeup on John Hurt to re-create Merrick’s appearance, known from photographs taken during his life,” said Spradlin. “The stage play uses none of that, instead relying on the actor playing Merrick to contort his body to suggest the physical deformities.”
In the play, we first encounter Merrick as part of a sideshow run by an unscrupulous character named Ross. When a physician at the London Hospital, Frederick Treves, happens upon the display of the deformed man, he takes an interest in Merrick from a clinical point of view. Later, when he’s been abandoned by his manager, Merrick turns to the only person he knows in London, and is brought into the London Hospital by Treves for both study and refuge.
Treves’ desire that Merrick live as normal a life as possible leads him to engage the services of a stage actress, Mrs. Kendal, to provide normalized female interaction. After meeting him, Kendal brings a host of London luminaries, even royalty, to visit him in his hospital apartment. Through it all, however, is the harsh reality that no matter how normal the trappings of his existence are made to be, Merrick is still a person apart from the rest of society.
“The film is no doubt well-known to our audiences,” said Spradlin, “but the play is every bit as moving and affecting as the film. Maybe more so, given the power of live performance over film. And I’m blessed to have a really powerful cast of actors.”
Portraying the title character is Nick Kory, better known to local audiences for his comedic turns. Kory was most recently seen as Frederick in the musical ‘Young Frankenstein’ at BCT. “Nick is a phenomenal performer, able to take on any challenge,” said Spradlin. “He brings great depth to the role of Merrick.”
Dr. Treves is played by veteran actor Kevin Yeager. “The play has more to do with Treves’ transformation than it does with Merrick’s,” said Spradlin. “He starts by examining Merrick, but Treves ends the play in a harsh examination of himself. And Kevin has shown the unique ability to play tough dramatic roles, such as Brick in our production of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’”
M.S. Bernard plays Carr Gomm, the no-nonsense hospital administrator. “This role requires a kind of quiet confidence, with just a hint of a sharp point to it,” Spradlin noted. “This well-known actor and director brings those qualities, plus a great sardonic humor, to the role.”
Jenny Kiffmeyer portrays Mrs. Kendal. “I directed Jenny back in 1993 in a musical,” said Spradlin, “and I’ve acted with her once. I’m so thrilled to have her on our stage again, in a role that she perfectly embodies.” Kiffmeyer is a mainstay performer at Pequot Lakes Community Theatre and Stage North Theatre.
The role of Ross, Merrick’s manager, is played by Marc Oliphant. “Again, I’m fortunate to have an actor whose body of work is so diverse and complete,” said Spradlin. “Marc brings humanity to a role that could be considered cliché.
Hollister Ford plays Bishop How, the religious mentor to Merrick. “I’ve seen Mark’s work at Stage North, but not had the pleasure of directing him until now,” said Spradlin. “He is perfect in a role that acts as counterbalance to the medical voices in the play.”
An ensemble of actors playing various roles throughout the play includes names well known to local theatre-goers. Sadie Wunder and Karla Johnson play both sideshow oddities and royalty; Deb and Gary Binda portray various characters who enter Merrick’s world; Jesse Brutscher and Connor Nichols complete the ensemble of characters. “All of these actors have been seen in leading and supporting roles in numerous productions, here at BCT and at Stage North and Pequot Lakes Community Theatre,” said Spradlin. “To have even the smallest of roles played by actors of this ability has been a true blessing.”
George Marsolek is set designer for the production; Ben Kent handles lighting and sound design. The production stage manager is Lorrie Jager.
“One of the more compelling parts of this production is live cello accompaniment, both as underscoring and as transitional music between scenes,” said Spradlin. “I am so pleased to have Brainerd High School student Erika Christiansen as our cellist. She is a phenomenal talent.”
Tickets for ‘The Elephant Man’ are available from the CLC Theatre Box Office at (218) 855-8199, or online at www.clcperformingarts.com
Sponsor for the show is GLAPA (Greater Lakes Area Performing Arts Association). The season is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board operating grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.