‘The Elephant Man’ on stage: Being Human 101
From left, Nathan Wallace, Logan Padilla, Tom Vitorino, John Ralston Craig / David Ruano

NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif.—The Thursday Night Theatre Club’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s Tony Award winner for Best Play The Elephant Man is simply an exquisitely poetically, philosophically rendered poignant work all about the art of being human. Based on the real-life case of the hideously physically deformed John Merrick (Tom Vitorino), the two-act drama follows the so-called “Elephant Man’s” lot in life in Victorian England throughout the 1880s.

When we first meet the misbegotten Merrick he is little more than a freak show, eking out a tuppence or farthing here and there as a sideshow act or passing the hat on the streets. In a canny double role, at first Jon Sperry portrays Ross, a sort of carnival barker who has nothing going for him aside from his sway over Merrick, in whom he sees a smalltime moneymaking enterprise.

During the 1970s, Pomerance adapted a new iteration of leftist bard Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s a Man for Foco Novo, a theatre company the American playwright cofounded. I mention this because exploitation is a recurring theme in The Elephant Man—at first by the pathetic Ross. After Dr. Frederick Treves (John Ralston Craig) extends a helping hand as a man of medicine and compassion to Merrick, the woe-begotten John moves into the London Hospital. Under the good doctor’s tutelage, he starts to develop himself as an individual and—dare I say it?—as a genuine human being. In the process, Merrick becomes the toast of the town, mingling with the crème de la crème, including members of Britain’s royal family. But is Merrick now just being exploited by a higher class of clientele?

To the observant eye, hospital administrator Carr Gomm (the unctuous Skip Pipo, who also plays a Conductor) has his own hidden agenda, using the Elephant Man’s newfound fame and friends in high places as a fundraising tool that also elevates his institution’s—and his own—profile. In his own way, Gomm is as exploitative as Ross, who returns in the second act intent on once again taking Merrick under his wing to mercilessly milk and make money out of his former “ward.”

The play ponders Dr. Treves’s motivations. Is he simply moved by humane considerations? Is he aware of the position, prestige, power and purse his association with Merrick, as his mentor, has bestowed upon him? Is he likewise exploiting the Elephant Man in the hallowed name of “science?” Pomerance may ask these questions, but there aren’t necessarily any easy answers.

Veteran helmer Robyn Cohen deftly directs her gifted ensemble. As in various Broadway, Off-Broadway, and West End stage productions starring David Schofield, David Bowie, as well as in Bradley Cooper’s 2014 revival on the Great White Way, no prosthetic makeup is used in the Thursday Night Theatre Club’s version. Vitorino’s transformation into the title role is nothing short of remarkable and awe-inspiring. What a moving metamorphosis! Vitorino’s virtuoso acting alone conjures up the Elephant Man’s deformities, mannerisms, walking and talking patterns. Bravo, Mr. Vitorino! You have won yourself a new fan—actually, I’m sure, many well-deserved new aficionados.

From left, Vanessa Vaughn, Jennipher Lewis , Robin Roth, Tom Vitorino, Albert Soratorio, John Sperry, Nathan Wallace / David Ruano

Incidental information: David Lynch’s 1980 black and white movie The Elephant Man, which was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture, does use prosthetics, etc., and stars John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud, but it is not based on Pomerance’s play.

For my ha’penny, Alice L. Walker as the actress Mrs. Kendal utters Pomerance’s wittiest lines, and she does so deliciously, in a knowing, worldly way. She also has a sexy scene that steals the show (you may want to leave the tykes at home), as the increasingly all-too-human Merrick discovers Eros in the form of the beautiful thespian.

I’d mentioned that Sperry has a double role, and he also depicts Bishop Howe. Is the man of the cloth leading Merrick (who aspires to construct a cathedral) to salvation, or is he just another exploiter in sheep’s clothing? Premiering as it did toward the tail end of the sexual revolution, Pomerance’s gem rails against stifling Victorian “morality.” Alas, that putative man of science, Treves too suffers from Victorian morality and afflicts it on others.

The drama also ruminates on the role of the British Empire and Englishmen in thoughtful ways as a critique of Western civilization and its discontents. Technical director Edwin Pleitez enhances the mise-en-scène throughout with atmospheric production values, often in the shape of fog (hey, much of the action is set in London!). Lillian George’s set is fluid and shifts frequently, while lighting director Bo Tindall and costume designer Melissa Marks bring the mood, themes and era vividly to life.

Overall, this fine Elephant Man is among the most moving meditations I’ve ever seen staged about the beauty within the beast and the human spirit. As Merrick pithily put it: “I am not a dog walking on his hind legs!” Here, here! This stellar production is rated “DMI” for: “Don’t Miss it!” Kudos!

The Thursday Night Theatre Club’s The Elephant Man is being performed on Thurs., Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 pm and Sun. at 3:00 pm from April 4-14 at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601. For info see the theatre website or call (818) 508-4200. Note: By midnight watch out for construction, street blockages and towing away of parked cars in North Hollywood.

L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Ed Rampell is moderating a panel on “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” April 2 at the San Francisco Art Institute. See here for details.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.