“Elephant Man” and Wayward Actors unequally yoked: Play demands more than company can give

Oct 23, 2007 at 4:44 pm

The Elephant Man: Dr. Frederick Treves (Craig Nolan Highley) rescues John Merrick (Joseph Ian Hatfield) from a hostile crowd.
The Elephant Man: Dr. Frederick Treves (Craig Nolan Highley) rescues John Merrick (Joseph Ian Hatfield) from a hostile crowd.
‘The Elephant Man’
Starring Maria Aloupis, Jacob Banser, Stuart Hamilton, Joseph Ian Hatfield, Craig Nolan Highley, Andy Higgins, Faith Hoover, Ashley Hoskins, Sidney Hymson, Rich Galey, Katie Graviss, Rick O’Daniel-Munger, Daniel Recktenwald, Jennifer Shank and Pamela Slack. Directed by Michael Harris. Written by Bernard Pomerance. A Wayward Actors Company production. Continues through Oct. 28. Call (800) 775-7777 or visit www.waywardactors.org for more info.

Note: This review is of a preview performance of “The Elephant Man,” which is considered a work-in-progress. After preview performances, the director reserves the right to make any necessary adjustments. LEO attended this show, which the company scheduled as a regular performance at the beginning of its season.

The looming issue with Wayward Actors Company’s latest production of “The Elephant Man,” by Bernard Pomerance, is one of laxness. A small company with the budget to match likely chooses shows that it thinks will bloom under the care it can offer, but if the company isn’t able or willing to dedicate the time necessary to nurture the show’s emotional heart, it is probable that the production will be as interesting as a sparse set.
“The Elephant Man” is the story of Joseph “John” Merrick (Joseph Ian Hatfield), a physically deformed man living as a sideshow in Victorian London. Doctor Frederick Treves (Craig Nolan Highley) discovers and undertakes John as a specimen for study in the London Hospital, later discovering he is highly intelligent and thoughtful.

Sometimes a play asks for a minimum of intricate design elements in order to place focus on the action at hand. For example, Wayward’s production of “Frozen” last season stepped up to the challenge of a bare stage. The successful result showcased not only the uncharted moral landscape held up for examination by the play itself, but also the mental isolation of the characters.

This “Elephant Man” could use more literal translation. This is a play about appearances and the judgment we pass based on them. I found myself wishing for a sharper divide between the squalor of Merrick’s life before and the relative luxury after he became a media sensation. If the cast and director are unable to illustrate that figuratively (as most productions of this play have done), then it would’ve been an inspired choice to have the set and costuming further illuminate the essential immutability of Merrick’s situation: He’s a sideshow regardless of how his exterior circumstances change.

There’s also the matter of Merrick’s extreme deformity. Although Hatfield is a talented actor and does adopt a series of physical tics, it’s just not enough to warrant the reaction he receives from people he encounters, nor does it give the audience the opportunity to confront its own prejudices. However, there is a sense that Hatfield spent so much time developing his physicality that he neglected the inner life of his character. Ultimately, the performance delivered little more than an accent.

Other key actors seem unprepared or uncomfortable in their roles. Highley falters on his lines more than once. Only when lines come as second nature does the actor really begin to flourish as the character.

Jennifer Shank, another actor who has produced good work in the past, seems uncharacteristically nervous. She wears a look of consternation much of the time and repeatedly clutches uncertainly at her skirt. It’s strange behavior for her character, a renowned, self-assured actress who’s convinced her dramatic prowess will obscure any negative reaction she might have to Merrick.

Sets require a fairly large budget, and I don’t fault Wayward for not having that, nor do I fault them for challenging themselves. I do, however, ask them to either choose plays that complement their resources or be more creative in their execution of those plays that require more substantial production values. A company might not always find true love doing such, but the chance for compatibility will be much more likely.