Threshold Rep's The Elephant Man "offers a great deal to gaze and think upon" 

The beautiful and the damned

Beauty is probably not the first word that comes to mind when considering The Elephant Man, the story of a sideshow freak who is famously far from easy on the eyes. And, yes, the play's events do center on the queasy-making physical flaws that define Joseph Merrick, the character based on an actual man who lived in 19th-century London and was stricken with a severe deformity, one that has been preserved for posterity by his surviving medical photos.

However, beauty — both its inner and outer manifestations — nonetheless abounds in Threshold Repertory Company's elegant, meditative production of The Elephant Man. Playwright Bernard Pomerance's rueful reflection on our mortal coil first appeared at London's National Theatre in 1977, to then be followed by an acclaimed Broadway run in 1979 and another stint there in 2014 with Bradley Cooper in the title role. Still others may know the story of poor Merrick from the 1980 David Lynch film starring John Hurt, with Anthony Hopkins as his faithful physician.

But before we partake of all this loveliness of sentiment and soul, we first encounter scenes punctuated by putrid skin conditions; withered, inert limbs; and craven freak show denizens from the brutish manager Ross to the twittering "pinhead" twosome known as "The Queens of Congo." We see the iconic photos and the disgust those images once elicited. And, as the audience of the sideshow stage, we are there to gawk along.

From this grim setting emerges an actor, Patrick Arnheim, in the role of Merrick, who comes before us altogether unmarred. He presents himself without the character's signature defects, standing dignified and silent in a wash of stage light. Slowly he twists one hand until it is rendered useless. He lurches his shoulder agonizingly askew. He leans gingerly on a cane. Ultimately, he has transformed utterly from the sublime to the wretched. And wretched he remains — in body, at least.

That initial glimpse of the actor's own symmetry lingers in our mind's eye – long after Merrick has assumed his sorry state, the state that compels others to heap degradation upon him or to greet him with shrieks. The task of holding him in esteem is left largely to his physician, Frederick Treves (Josh Wilhoit), who seeks to study Merrick, and, while doing so, to perhaps restore his patient's dignity. To that end, the task is also in the hands of one Mrs. Kendall (Kelley Swindall), a prominent actress who Treves enlists with the hopes the can train her celebrated poise on ennobling his ward.

Through these kinder eyes, we are also able to see Merrick for his higher qualities – his artistic nature, his gentle soul. We see his one comely hand at work, building the model of a church. And we also see how any man or monstrosity changes shape through our vantage — and, what's more, through what we project upon them.

In shining the light on all of this, Pomerance's gorgeously worded play mirrors Merrick's own plight. While it may be encased in such terrible trappings — cauliflower skin and human contempt — it is at its core an intricate contemplation on body and soul that illuminates how elusive they can be. As Mrs. Kendall leverages her considerable social contacts on behalf of Merrick, we see how quickly the cast-out can be recast, depending on the introduction. As financial questions swirl around the facility where Merrick now makes his home, we also see that freakish aspects once again exploited – just as they were during his sideshow days.

Threshold's production, which is directed by Jay Danner, does much to honor the fineness of the text. The set, designed and built by Charles McHugh, forms clean lines from raw wood, carefully curating the stuff of the story: a bathtub, a doorway; and, most significantly, a center screen projecting images and scene names, delivered in a vintage type recalling old films and older times. Similarly, the measured Victorian finery of the costumes is effective and evocative.

The acting is fine as well. Arnheim is a tender, touching Merrick, wholly sympathetic in his tortured form. Wilhoit's Treves is all stridency and competence, with enough heart to convince as the keeper of the tricky proposition that is Merrick, but also enough starch to justify other, less enlightened actions. As Mrs. Kendall, Swindall does much to lend both spark and comfort to the stage.

And, while The Elephant Man does not work itself up into the quite the emotional crescendo that it might, it offers a great deal to gaze upon and to think upon. Merrick's is a story at the nexus of flesh and spirit that can touch us all. With craft and grace, it reveals just how tricky and treacherous are those fine lines between the beautiful and the damned.


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