When a real-estate investor's brand-new theater company takes a seldom-used space to mount a difficult drama, you don't expect great things. But, refreshingly enough, East Side Productions' "The Elephant Man" is a top-notch show and an impressive debut.

In the Market Five Theater, a cavernous space at Eastern Market recently graced with a stage, Bernard Pomerance's hit is getting a meticulous, well-acted production. Producer/entrepreneur David Dibo ought to be mighty pleased.

Director John Jacobsen and his generally accomplished cast manage to keep matters moving while giving them depth and texture. With Joseph P. Normile in the title role, it's a smartly calibrated reading of the story of John Merrick, the English circus freak who became the unlikely darling of Victorian society from 1886 to 1890.

Normile contorts his face and body to suggest horrible deformity -- a powerful illusion -- but he also manages to project a certain charm. Brutally exploited by the circus, then genteely used by the upper class, he undertakes an odyssey from monster to man. Normile, conveying many of the character's inner contradictions, is by turns helpless, stubborn, foolish and wise. But as soon as you start to think of him as relatively ordinary, the actor reminds you otherwise with a slobber, limp or tic.

As Merrick's mentor, protector and unwitting exploiter, Martin Goldsmith musters an equally rich performance. He plays Dr. Frederick Treves -- who gives the Elephant Man a home at London Hospital -- as someone at war with himself: a decent, gentle healer always striving against the ambitious egomaniac.

"Why do rules make you happy, John?" he asks at one point, force-feeding his patient a Victorian gentleman's catechism. Goldsmith lends the line a frightening fanaticism, with Normile trying to squirm out of reach. "I don't know," he resists, making for a battle of wills on stage. The actors do a good job showing a complex symbiosis, and their scenes together are high spots in the show.

The most riveting moment, however -- and not just because it involves a bit of deft undressing -- is an interlude between the Elephant Man and Mrs. Kendall, the famous actress who befriends him and presents him to society. Anne Stone is wholly convincing as Merrick's would-be lover, repelled by his freakish body but attracted to his soul. The scene, with its explosive ending, is nicely choreographed and played.

There's solid work from the rest of the cast -- jugglers, barkers, pinheads and whores, with some playing four roles apiece -- classy costumes and a serviceable, if graceless, set. Live cello and flute music sets the mood well. And while there are still bugs to be worked out in the theater -- it's occasionally hard to hear the actors, for instance -- East Side Productions has set itself a high standard for the future. THE ELEPHANT MAN -- At The Market Five Theater, at Eastern Market, through May 8.