When you watch a movie, the detailed picture is already created for you and served up for your consumption. In contrast, theater engages audience members' imagination, making them co-creators of the world in which a play exists and requiring active participation. Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man is a perfect example of how this partnership works: In an early scene, slides of the actual "Elephant Man" are shown on one side of the stage, while a physically "normal" actor appears on the other side.
The audience must imaginatively transfer the deformities endured by John Merrick onto the body of this actor (Andrew Michael Neiman), who provides a sense of Merrick's gait and facial anomalies without any makeup or prosthetic devices. This makes for the most compelling kind of theater -- and if Pomerance had allowed the actor/audience alliance to develop naturally through the telling of the story, the play might be a complete success.
While The Elephant Man won awards when it debuted in 1979, today the writing seems overly scientific in form, each scene labeled like a slide for examination. In this production, the recitation of the obscure scene titles (things like "art is as nothing to nature") falls to a character named Snork (Charles Heuvelman), who functions as a stagehand. Giving these lines to Snork as he sets the stage for the next scene provides a commendable sense of continuity, but the effort would work better if he was speaking clearly to the audience instead of haphazardly spouting the scene titles as if he's talking nonsense to himself.
When Pomerance allows the characters to interact -- instead of distracting the audience with philosophical discourses -- the play soars, and the ensemble in this Stray Dog Theatre production shine. Many of the actors play multiple roles; standouts include William Ledbetter as the faithful Bishop How and the faithless Ross, and Suki Peters as a daft freak-show performer and actress Mrs. Kendal. The scenes between Peters and Neiman, as Kendal and Merrick, are the highlight of the production. Peters conveys the spirit of a woman brave enough to see the person beneath the deformity, while Neiman creates a lovably wise character; together they breathe life into the "Elephant Man"'s barren existence.
As Frederick Treves, the doctor who rescues and cares for Merrick, Bill Finkbiner has a difficult task. Like his counterparts in Equus and Agnes of God, Treves is a doctor driven to self-doubt, nightmares and questions of faith. His journey from complete belief in science to crying for help from God is interesting when Pomerance simply lets him experience it -- but too often the playwright makes Treves tell us what he's feeling ("I am in despair"), instead of simply showing it. Finkbiner is intriguing in his active scenes, particularly with Neiman and Peters, and when the script allows it, his emotional journey is honest.
The climax of the play requires several difficult decisions for director Gary Bell. As Treves succumbs to his despair, Merrick completes a miniature model of a cathedral and proclaims, "It is finished." Should the scene focus on Merrick's echo of Christ's final words on the cross, or Treves' breakdown? Bell wisely keeps the focus on Treves. But in the next scene, when Merrick dies, Bell stages the moment so it remains unclear whether his death was accidental or deliberate -- which seems to rob Merrick of a powerful moment of choice.
Pomerance pounds many "important lessons" into his script: Rules should be questioned, faith and science can co-exist, and we're all more similar than different. But the most effective educational experience happens effortlessly during the curtain call. The cast, split into two groups, lines up on either side of the stage and takes a bow. The audience looks around, waiting for the entrance of the "Elephant Man." And then we see Neiman, standing straight and tall: one of them, one of us.