Published: 12:05 AM, Thu March, 7 2019
Beneath the deformities that turned John Merrick into an object of revulsion, there was a human being.
Audiences who see “The Elephant Man,” which tells the story of Merrick’s life, will see past the exterior and maybe get a glimpse of their own heart.
The play opens Friday at the Youngstown Playhouse.
Merrick’s transformation from sideshow freak to the toast of society in Victorian-era London is a well-known – and true – story. It won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1979 and has been revived twice. It reached a wider audience with the 1980 movie starring John Hurt in the title role.
Hurt wore prosthetics to replicate Merrick’s bone and skin deformities, but that’s not the case in the stage play.
The audience knows it is looking at a grotesque figure, but it can see the man that the other characters initially cannot. The actor wears no makeup or prosthetics, though his posture indicates he is crippled with deformities.
What: “The Elephant Man”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and also March15 and 16; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday and March 17
Where: Youngstown Playhouse
Tickets: $15 *($12 for senior citizens and students); call 330-788-8739 or go to www.theyoungstownplayhouse.com
Notice: The play is intended for mature audiences and is not recommended for children
Post-show cabaret: Saturday and March 15 ($10)
While Merrick’s story is certainly a product of its time, it makes for a drama that raises consciousness in any era.
“What it does for me is reawakens that sense of empathy for our fellow creatures, which is something the world needs a lot more of these days,” said Matthew Mazuroski, who is directing the Playhouse production. “It allows us to be put in John Merrick’s shoes, a man horribly afflicted by several syndromes and birth defects that disfigured him.”
The play also works on another level, according to Mazuroski,
“It examines why we help those less fortunate than ourselves – what’s in it for us, and how it makes us feel better about our own lives,” he said.
An underpinning of the play is the Industrial Revolution, the period of the late 19th Century when steam-powered machinery spawned the first modern factories. Those who worked in the factories became like cogs in those machines, and this theme runs parallel to Merrick’s disfigured body.
“There is that sense of man and machine coming into conflict,” said Mazuroski. “The way of life was changing for so many. People were moving into cities where the factories were and working 16-hour days. That pressure can deform the human soul.”
Merrick is found working in a freak show and is taken in by Dr. Treves. As his intelligence and sensitivity is revealed, Merrick becomes an object of curiosity for London’s well-to-do.
But his role as someone to be gawked at behind bars is only thinly replaced in his new social standing.
“He is still on display, but for a whole different clientele,” said Mazuroski. “[For the upper crust], it is good to be seen with the elephant man. It gives you credibility.”
Merrick’s new life is confusing to him at first, which adds fish-out-of-water comedic moments.
“He was outside of society for so long that when he is confronted by it, he asks [naive] questions about things he doesn’t understand,” said Mazuroski.
The Playhouse production features a veteran cast, including three lead actors who have appeared in past productions of the play.
John Pecano in the title role, and John Cox, as Dr. Treves, each played the same roles the last time the Playhouse staged “The Elephant Man,” which was 12 years ago.
James McClellan, who played Merrick in a production at Youngstown State University many years before, portrays Carr Gomm, the chairman of the hospital where Merrick is taken.
The cast also includes Donald G. Connors, Paul Dahman, Candace DiLullo, Pat Foltz, Molly Galano, Terry Shears and Jackie Stevens.
“It’s an incredible cast working to bring this story to life,” said Mazuroski. “The audience is in for a treat if they enjoy fine acting.”
The director said the play’s power will affect those who see it.
“Hearts will be full at the end of the evening,” said Mazuroski. “The plays asks questions. It’s not truly disturbing, but it’s a piece you can lean into. John Merrick was a human being, not a freak. We are divided by differences today, and it is a piece that can bring us together and open our hearts.”
A special cabaret performance will take place in the Playhouse’s Moyer Room immediately after “The Elephant Man” performances Saturday and March 15.
The hourlong program, entitled “Maybe It’s Time,” will feature McClellan and guitarist Tyler Guerrieri and will include standards, pop songs and show tunes.
Tickets are $10, with patrons who have also purchased tickets to “The Elephant Man” receiving a $2 discount. Light refreshments will be served. Reservations are recommended.
The post-show cabarets are the first in what the Playhouse hopes will become regular offerings Call the box office at 330-788-8739 or go to theyoungstownplayhouse.com.