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In review: “The Elephant Man”

Melbourne Civic Theatre closes a wildly successful season with dramatic flair thanks to its handsome and artful production of “The Elephant Man.”

Playwright Bernard Pomerance received the 1979 Tony and Drama Desk awards for his riveting, compelling depiction of the final years in the pitiful life of horribly disfigured John Merrick, known simply as the “Elephant Man.”

In it, Dr. Frederick Treves rescues Merrick, who is in his 20s, from life that is nothing more than a freak show existence. Treves brings Merrick to the London Hospital where he is clothed, fed and given, essentially, his first home since the age of three. While there, Merrick forges his first real friendship with a woman — an actress named Mrs. Kendal. It is the tenderness of their friendship that is the most revelatory of Merrick’s true sensitivity and intellectual nature.

While the play deals with the basic plot and characters forming Merrick’s life, it also rises into lofty poetic pursuits. Although he is badly made, Merrick is our lump of clay given breath and voice to question love, human compassion and divine grace.

The real man beneath the monstrous mantel emerges and captivates London society. He is still put on display, albeit in more genteel surroundings. Leaders of culture, medicine, religion and politics find order in his abstract form and each see in him the best of who they are…or, want to be.

Directed by Peg Girard, the high concept production moves like a waltz. All its elements, from sound design and projections of titles, to blocking and lighting cues, move in a tightly choreographed manner.

Adrian Cahill brings an intense dignity to Treves and shows him to be a deeply compassionate individual.

As Merrick, Anthony DeTrano has his best turn yet on stage. He brings tenderness and a true love for his character, which shows in his heartfelt portrayal.

Tracey Thompson carves out an appealing, multi-layered portrayal of Mrs. Kendall. The scenes between Mrs. Kendall and Merrick are rich ones which resonate long after the final curtain. Unfortunately, her final scene with him is a bit rushed. It’s so delectable and human that we want to savor it and Merrick’s reaction. Here is a good spot to slow down that waltz and let the moment really sink in.

Chandler McRee hits the theatrical bullseye as Ross, the freak show barker who employed Merrick. In his final scene, McRee takes his time and reveals the sad, miserable existence Ross has endured. His acting is so vivid you can almost smell the rot gut whiskey Ross drinks. It’s a good dramatic scene that enlivens the production and engages DeTrano in his best work as well.

Scenic designer Gary Postlethwait does a good job with this highly presentational production. His minimal design employs a low wall that curves along the upstage, forming a circus like setting. After the opening, Girard described it as an operating theater. Regardless of the visual metaphor, it serves well the over-arching theme of dissecting Merrick and his keeper, Treves.

Alan Selby’s lighting design is juicily delicious. Warm colors, nice, low lighting, tight spots and rear title projections overall create a very theatrical production. If this is what all those raffles have gone to, then this is money very well spent indeed.

Such a good play to choose for a season closer. It’s taut drama, well told and compelling. The artists involved here all work together to reveal the truths about which Pomerance wrote: That underneath our suave exteriors, we are as misshapen as the monster next door; and that hope and grace can still live beneath the horrors that trap us Certainly good ideas to ponder given the headlines and times we live.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Elephant Man” runs through June 17 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $20 general and $18 seniors, military and students. Call 321-723-6935 or visit