More than a quarter-century after it was written, "The Elephant Man" continues to leave a large footprint in the repertory. A Broadway revival was fashioned for actor Billy Crudup two years ago, and now the play has captured the fancy of D.C.'s Catalyst Theater Company, a young troupe that Jim Petosa is directing in a glossy little production at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
It's not that Bernard Pomerance wrote an enduringly insightful, reliably wrenching drama when he took on the true story of the wretchedly disfigured John Merrick, yet another 19th-century soul exploited as a freak. (For a comparable theatricalized case study, see Suzan-Lori Parks's "Venus," now playing at Petosa's Olney Theatre Center.) The hardiness of "The Elephant Man" is due largely to the fact that as a piece of middlebrow entertainment, it's impeccably built.
Pomerance's writing is full of the kind of buffed logic and flawlessly crafted epigrams that sound plummy in the mouths of skilled actors; an extended bit of banter late in the first act is so droll it could almost pass for Oscar Wilde. The tone is formal, for we are dealing with Victorians -- rule-mongers of the first order. This overriding formality exists to be punctured, of course, usually by the outwardly misshapen yet intellectually supple Mr. Merrick, and there is satisfaction to be had with every pop.
Primarily, though, the script offers a signature challenge for an ambitious actor willing to convey Merrick's grotesqueries without makeup or significant help from wardrobe. When Treves, Merrick's doctor/savior, ticks off each deformity, Scott Fortier -- at that moment playing Merrick clad in nothing but a cloth around his middle -- brings it all to life. His mouth twists, he lifts one hip at a violent angle, he breathes as if wounded and measures his words one . . . by . . . one.
The inventiveness and discipline are impressive, and Fortier aptly balances the body's agony with tenderness of spirit -- the foolproof combination that Pomerance concocted. Just as audiences are drawn to the character's superior sensitivity, so they cheer the conspicuous art of the actor.
It's easy to grow cynical about the dramaturgy because the play feels so much like an object lesson. Though it brings to mind another doctor-and-oddball play, "Equus" (which Fortier and Petosa did together several years ago), "The Elephant Man" doesn't have that drama's depth. And what intellectual agonies there are don't resonate much in the earnest but too youthful performance of Peter Finnegan as Treves.
Still, the production is generally pretty spiffy. Debra Kim Sivigny's period costumes have the right amount of street squalor and swank, and Jin-Young (Janice) Shin's live performance of the incidental oboe music lends a lofty tone. Most of the supporting acting feels a little green, even when James Konicek is wrapping his deep, rumbling voice around a few roles, but the superb Valerie Leonard is on hand to deliver charming, nuanced work as Mrs. Kendal, the actress who takes a shine to Merrick. The delicately rendered conversations between Leonard and the artfully fragile Fortier are truly irresistible.
And you have to admire the occasional funhouse effect created by the walls of Alexander Cooper's mirrored set. When Merrick meets Mrs. Kendal and says, "You . . . are . . . so . . . beautiful," watch those mirrors: From the center seats at least, the reflection of Fortier's head looks perfectly proportional, while Leonard's is the size of a Volkswagen. The picture is worth a thousand or so of Pomerance's well-turned words.
The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance. Directed by Jim Petosa. Assistant direction/dramaturgy, Christopher Janson; lights, Alexander Cooper; sound, Dan Ribaudo; original music, Jesse Terrill. With Terrill, John Tweel and Ellen Young. Approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Oct. 16 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit www.catalysttheater.com.