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THEATER REVIEW: "The Elephant Man" suffers opening night jitters

The social contract thrives on conformity. Oh, we may say we appreciate the unusual, but let’s face it: throughout history, people who didn’t fit into socially established molds in behavior, appearance or attitude have been punished with isolation, imprisonment, hospitalization or worse.

OnStage Playhouse presents Bernard Pomerance’s dramatization of incidents in the last six years in the life of a 19th-century Londoner who didn’t fit the accepted mold. “The Elephant Man,” directed by Steve Murdock, plays through Feb. 4.

Joseph (here called John) Merrick was grotesquely disfigured by what modern diagnosticians call the Proteus syndrome, a rare congenital disorder that causes unusual skin growth and atypical bone development, often accompanied by tumors on the body. (At the time he was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis; some experts today think it was a combination of the two.)

Abandoned to a workhouse while still a child, Merrick (James E. Steinberg) became part of a traveling freak show act managed by Ross (Joel Castellaw), who treated him badly.

Dr. Frederick Treves (O.P. Hadlock) discovered him there. His interest was at first purely medical: he wanted to photograph Merrick and exhibit him to the medical establishment.

But Treves, finding him gentle and intelligent, soon took a personal interest in Merrick and persuaded London Hospital administrator Carr Gomm (Brian P. Evans) to give him a permanent home there (thanks to a newspaper article which inspired charitable contributions).

Treves finds it difficult to find someone to care for Merrick – even a nurse experienced at working with lepers in Africa (played by Holly Stephenson) – bolts at the shocking sight of Merrick’s deformities).

Still, Treves wonders to what extent Merrick could have a normal life. He lines up friends among the nobility – and an actress named Mrs. Kendal (Cheryl Livingston) – to visit in order to give him human contact. But is it kindness or cruelty to give Merrick a taste of a life he could never have?

It’s a dramatic story, even a parable about society, fitting in and the penalty for differentness.

The play is difficult because the script itself is problematic, its brief 21 scenes making it so choppy that it is difficult to find a thread that connects them. Characters appear and disappear with such rapidity that it’s tough to find coherence in the play.

For example, the presence of three female “pinheads” (played by Jasmin Mellado, Nicol Reeves and Samantha Vesco in outrageous costumes) is puzzling. Their function might be as Greek chorus; unfortunately, on opening night poor diction made it impossible to understand them.

All those scenes also make set changes problematic. This play works best in a theater large enough that scenes can be lit by a single spot, leaving the rest of the stage dark for the (more or less invisible) movement of props and sets. OnStage does not have that option, forcing the flow of the play to compete with set changes.

And I’m sorry to report that the cast was not ready for opening night. Some actors didn’t have their lines down; there was far too much mumbling and rushing through lines, and all showed a seeming lack of awareness of how one character relates to the others (some of this last, to be sure, can be laid at the playwright’s feet, and some at the director’s).

But give OnStage Playhouse points for gutsy programming. Their last show was a stunning “The Diary Of Anne Frank” – also a difficult show to pull off – in which everything worked.

Let’s hope that by the time you read this, they have fixed the problems evident on opening night.

The details

“The Elephant Man” plays through Feb. 4 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave. in Chula Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets, call (619) 422-7787 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.