Wickliffe shines in title role of Randall's 'Elephant Man'

"The Elephant Man," the award-winning 1977 play by Bernard Pomerance, is a tour de force for its lead actor.

The actor who plays Joseph Merrick must convey the fact that he is horribly physically deformed and crippled without the use of makeup or prosthetics. As the actor consistently distorts his face and twists his body, the portrayal of Merrick's physical and psychic pain is communicated by voice and expression only, delivering a finely modulated performance as though from behind a mask.

The Randall Theatre Company's production of "The Elephant Man," which opened Friday, has the good luck to have Peter Wickliffe playing Merrick. Over the past few years, Wickliffe has matured as an actor working in theaters around the Rogue Valley and he has studied his craft well. I doubt that any actor from larger companies could play Merrick better.

Pomerance's deeply ironic play is about the contrast of the perceptions of a civilized society between Merrick and his "rescuer," Dr. Frederick Treves.

Merrick grew up in a Victorian workhouse and subsequently lived in a traveling freak show. His concepts of justice, decency, compassion and friendship are very different from the constrained Victorian behavioral norms being taught to him by Treves to make him "just as other men."

As Treves schools Merrick on gratitude and propriety, Merrick, in his new "home" at London Hospital, is still on exhibit. The upper crust of London society who now come to visit view him as a curiosity. "There but for the grace of God" and all that.

They marvel that mentally and emotionally he is so like them — seeing their own perceptions of self reflected in him. Only the actress, Mrs. Kendal, hired by Treves to give Merrick some female companionship, comes to see beyond the physical deformity and to form a real friendship with him — a friendship of mutual understanding and trust.

In the Randall Theatre's Company's production, the supporting actors do not match Wickliffe's lead performance. Jon Oles as Treves and Becky Durango as Mrs. Kendal try hard but they are no match for Wickliffe. Performances by the rest of the cast trail downward from there.

Part of the problem is that director Michael Meyer has given the production no subtlety and very little of playwright Pomerance's irony.

Durango's performance misses the contrast between Mrs. Kendal's humorously stilted dialogue and the warmth and humanity underneath it. By placing their focus on Mrs. Kendal's highly elaborate speech patterns, Meyer and Durango fail to convey her growing vulnerability and trust.

Likewise, Oles portrays Treves' eventual understanding of his emotional limitations and his growing despair through a lot of hand-wringing and wailing.

Randall Theatre Company is an ambitious venture and its managing artistic director, Robin Downward, should be commended for attempting serious dramatic fare and making live theater financially accessible to everyone. It is a community theater in the best sense of the phrase.

Without its efforts, we would not have Peter Wickliffe's astonishing performance as John Merrick in "The Elephant Man." And that would be a real loss.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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