THE ELEPHANT MAN -- At the Eisenhower Theater through April 5.
The wonder of "The Elephant Man" is Philip Anglim, a perfectly well-formed young actor who, without any help from trick makeup, convincingly plays a man who is grossly disfigured. In an age of type-casting and special effects, the feat of establishing a complicated physical state by acting alone is surprising, and he has earned and won many awards for it.
The play, which has also been collecting awards in New York, is not so much about its title character, however, as about society's attitudes toward him. Bernard Pomerance has used the true story of John Merrick, a victim of severe neurofibromatosis who went from being a sideshow freak to being late-Victorian society's pet, to explore the complex subject of human reactions to human imperfection.
He has skimmed over many paradoxes and skipped some of the most perplexing questions; but it is nevertheless a riveting play, well structured and written, and beautifully acted.
Actual photographs of Merrick are shown on a screen as Ken Ruta, playing a physician who rescues him, gives a lecture on the hideous and foul-smelling growths with which Merrick's body was afflicted: The doctor gives him a home at London Hospital and endeavors to supply him with a semblance of normal human intercourse. But because Merrick's aspect so repels ordinary people, this has to be done artificially. An actress, charmingly played by Penny Fuller, is engaged to appear as an acquaintance; she becomes a real friend, drawing in her rich and titled circle as a supporting cast until Merrick is the darling of high society. At Christmastime, his hospital room is crowded with silver toilet articles that he cannot use on his oversized, misshapen head.
There is an aura there inviting condemnation of the phoniness of this attention, as opposed to the naturalness of Merrick's soul. Because we have discovered that Merrick is bursting with romantic charm, it is suggested that he comes freshly to civilization as something of a Noble Savage, while the motive of his professed friends, who range from the Princess of Wales to the doctor who saved him, seem confused at best and often darkly egotistical.
But by the internal testimony of the play, it is the unthinking, "natural" reactions of people that are most cruel, and the determined control of will directed by compassion -- in word, civilization -- that gives Merrick his only taste of happiness. Before the doctor rescued him, crowds attempted to destroy him on the street. Even the usually kindly doctor has an outburst in which he shouts that sexuality is "forbidden" to such as Merrick -- a furiously unreasonable reaction with which disabled people are only too familiar.
And Merrick himself is shown as humanly susceptible to physical attractiveness, as he discusses the merits of different female types. If an argument were being made for totally discounting looks, he would be as guilty of intolerance as the attacking crowds.
The contradictions in our civilized belief in the sanctity of the soul and our natural reactions to the body are infinitely complex, and Pomerance has achieved something with this play simply by raising a few of them. He has invited us to condemn crude hostility and to question patronizing romanticizing.
But he has stopped short of confronting the compelling issue, now as then, of establishing a society that genuinely values all people for their true worth, whatever it might be.