Falcon Theater’s The Elephant Man is a well-cast, well-paced, and satisfying staging of the play based on the true and very famous story of John Merrick. Discovered working at a fair ground in Victorian England, Merrick made a wretched living in a sideshow; his body was horrifically deformed for medical reasons that remain a mystery. He spent the last part of his short life (he died before he was 30) living a more peaceful existence in a hospital in London. Throughout his life, John Merrick struggled to walk, to speak, to write and to be understood.
This simple, steady production is a very successful piece of theatrical storytelling. Brought to life by a highly committed group of actors and an inventive design team, all involved left a fair amount of elbow grease on the floor of the Falcon’s non-traditional and unapologetic space. Jared D. Doren’s creative direction and design made excellent use of the small stage, easily guiding the audience’s imagination from seedy fairground to crowded train station to homey hospital quarters.
The play has a heightened, foggy, Sherlock Holmes-ian feel and if actors do not keep their choices in check the production risks drifting into pure melodrama, obscuring its humanity and wisdom. Fortunately, this group of performers, resplendent in Joy Galbriath’s rich costumes, kept their choices clear, deliberate and not over-the-top. Blake Bowden’s portrayal of Frederick Treves, Merrick’s rescuer and physician, evolves from pompous and preening to tortured and regretful. And Leah Strasser’s lovely Mrs. Kendal is confident, quick-witted and sure of herself.
But The Elephant Man rests primarily on the shoulders of actor Joshua Steele in the role of John Merrick. Rather than unnecessarily complicating the part with gallons of liquid latex makeup and complex costuming, a lot of Merrick’s deformity is left to the imagination. Steele perfected Merrick’s labored gait and physicality and made vocal choices that gave an impression of how difficult Merrick’s speech was to understand.
The Falcon resists the urge to take The Elephant Man too far, but wisely keeps its production minimal and all the more telling.
THE ELEPHANT MAN, presented by Falcon Theater, continues through March 5 at Monmouth Theatre. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.