Scott Community College's heart-tugging production of playwright Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man is truly touching, with much of the credit for Thursday's emotion going to James Thames' portrayal of the titular character. While director Steve Flanigin does not use makeup to make Thames look like the real Joseph Merrick - who lived during the late 19th Century and who, for still-unknown reason, was deformed with what looked like gargantuan warts on his head, shoulder, torso, legs, and right arm - Thames manages to successfully depict physical abnormality by way of constantly holding his mouth to the right side of his face, even while speaking. Through the course of Merrick's existence from sideshow freak to hospital resident to friend of high-society England, it's Thames' unassuming nature and gentle speech, as filtered through his deformed face, that make his Merrick so heartbreaking and pitiable.
Flanigin doesn't leave the real Merrick's appearance to the minds of the audience, though. Early on in the story, as eventual caretaker Dr. Treves (Austin Stone) offers a lecture on his subject's physicality, Flanigin has an image of the actual Joseph Merrick placed on an easel next to Stone, and the choice is effective for allowing the audience to know exactly what Thames' character looks like - otherwise, one might wonder why anyone would reject this man who, beyond the placement of his mouth, doesn't look all that different from anyone else. (In terms of costuming, The Elephant Man's designs are credited to the cast, with Thames clothed in a white shirt and pants rather than the traditional white sheet wrapped around Merrick's waist.)
It's Merrick's ever-present curiosity that most greatly aids in our emotional connection to the character, and his childlike nature - with his longing to be like others and his understandable fear of discipline (a result of his days of being beaten while employed at a workhouse prior to joining the freak show) - is mixed with thoughtfulness in Thames' endearing portrayal. It's easy to hope for Merrick to thrive after his rejection from a freak-show tour and his settling in at the hospital, to enjoy the friendships he forms with his visitors, and to celebrate the successful construction of a model church he's been working on using his one good hand. And as Thames' Merrick finds greater joy in each visit with friends who applaud his progress, there's an increasing hope that his life will become more "normal," rendering his ultimate demise - his final attempt at normalcy - all the more poignant.
As Dr. Treves, the man who finds a permanent home for Merrick in London Hospital, Stone employs fine inflections, creating a balance between true concern for Merrick and a colder, scientific interest in the man. However, the actor's movements on Thursday were awkward, as if Stone didn't know whether or not he should be moving his arms. It was also somewhat unfortunate that Stone's greatest moments on Thursday were in the third-to-final scene, in which it was clear that the performer was reading from a script hidden in his character's portfolio. Still, this crutch (while the sign of an incompletely prepared actor) did seem to be a comfort to Stone, who subsequently lost all awkwardness in his movements, and emoted with abandon both physically and vocally. If Stone is able to transfer the uninhibited nature of his performance in this scene into the rest of his portrayal, without the aid of a script, his Treves will be more notable during The Elephant Man's second weekend.
John R. Turner portrays the London Hospital administrator Carr Gomm, who allows Treves to house Merrick partly because it's good publicity and income for the institution, and it's a solid fit for the actor, as Turner's grandiloquence is well-suited to a character in a position of authority. (Turner does, though, have a tendency to seemingly stumble on his lines, and if he is indeed stumbling, he's a master at covering for it, making that dialogue seem organic in the process.) Will Marsbury makes it quite clear that he's worthy of bigger roles by way of his first few moments as the Irish-accented, bombastic Ross, the freak-show manager who sells visitation rights to Treves. During his three short scenes, Marsbury exudes confidence and commanding stage presence with a dynamism that demands attention and deserves it, and the actor also portrays Porter - a hospital employee fired for gawking at Merrick - with equal aplomb. Meanwhile, after notable turns as multiple characters in last year's The Actor's Nightmare and Blue Sky Merchants, Analisa Percuoco continues her run of well-developed SCC characters as Mrs. Kendal, the actress hired by Treves to socialize with Merrick. Percuoco's poised socialite, however, seems to take a sincere interest in Merrick, seeming to enjoy their regular visits, and eventually introducing him to her high-society friends.
The rest of the cast members fill multiple roles, with Zach Carel a particular standout - not so much for his no-nonsense yet one-note policeman, but rather for his compassionate, gentle Bishop How, who regularly visits Merrick and is interested in his salvation. And Sara Bolet's Nurse Sandwich lets out a sincerely horrified shriek at her first sight of Merrick, while her Princess Alexandra - another of Merrick's guests - manages to be haughty but also friendly, in a way that suggests her acquaintance with Merrick is self-serving yet charitable.
All in all, Scott Community College's The Elephant Man is a production worthy of the material, and effectively elicits compassion for its central character. Though not as artistically rendered as last year's The Actor's Nightmare, nor as fun as 2012's Don't Talk to the Actors, The Elephant Man is the most emotional work I've seen from Flanigin, and from SCC, to date.
The Elephant Man runs at Scott Community College's Student Life Center (500 Belmont Road, room #2400 through exterior Door 5, Bettendorf) through October 26, and more information is available by e-mailing director Steve Flanigin at email@example.com.