SOUTH BEND — South Bend Civic Theatre has bitten off a huge chunk of drama in its current offering, Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man.” Based on the life of Joseph (aka John) Merrick, the play is a cautionary warning not to take things or, in this case, people, at face value — literally. The 1979 Broadway production earned several awards, including the Tony, as best drama with like awards for leading man Phillip Anglim and lady, Carole Shelley. There was a TV version of the play and, in 1980, a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, with John Hurt in the title role. The movie used extensive prosthetic makeup to depict the effects of Merrick’s extreme deformity, now thought to be neurofibromytosis. The stage version, however, relied on the skill of the actor alone to create in the viewer’s mind his actual appearance. With the help of slide projections of the actual “Elephant Man” as a frame of reference, SBCT actor Vincent Bilancio achieves this by employing halting speech, a dragging gait and slight twists to his torso, which definitely convey the physical torment of the man and, finally, the triumph of his spirit over the prison of his body.”My head,” he explains to his doctor, “is so big because it is filled with dreams.” The production itself is as affectingly spare as Bilancio’s performance. Using slide projections throughout not only to title each of the 21 scenes but to depict the settings — 1884-1890 London and Brussels — works well, as do the sliding scrims which easily change the locations in the multi-level setting designed by David Chudzynski. Eric Wegener’s lighting design and the musical interludes which bridge the scenic gaps also are positive enhancements of the era and the triumphantly tragic players. Hopefully, the mood-breaking noise of the scene changes will be eliminated by this week’s final performances. As Frederick Treves, the doctor who brings Merrick from a freak show attraction to a home at The London hospital and the center of London’s high society, Scot Shepley creates a compassionate but unyielding man of science who, at last, must come to grips with his own frustrations of the world around him. As he pleads for Merrick’s right to a normal life, he also faces opposition from hospital administrator Car Gomm, played with with properly autocratic rigidity by Roy Bronkema, who wants to depose Merrick when his use as a subject for examination ends. A deluge of funds from the fascinated public and royals makes this unnecessary, As the one woman in Merrick’s life, actress Mrs. Kendal overcomes her initial shock to become his friend and, when he admits he has never seen a naked woman, allows him to see her, a kindness which shocks Treves and leads to his banning her from the hospital. Lorri Wright handles the difficult assignment with theatrical grace. Several in the cast have multiple roles, with the excellent Ted Manier portraying both the freak show owner who finds, then robs and abandons Merrick and a Count who is among the royals who finds something of himself in the deformed man. Mark Allen Carter is best as Bishop Walsingham How, who works with Merrick as he turns to religion. Chudzynski plays policemen, a hospital orderly and a Victorian Bernie Madoff while Abbey Frick and Kathleen Canavan-Martin are sideshow Pinheads (don’t ask, I never did figure them out) as well as royals, Acoustics in the main stage theater are always frustrating, although director Terry Farren and his mostly-veteran cast have worked hard, directionally, to minimize the muffling which is most frustrating when Shepley launches into his final, extensive monologue.
“THE ELEPHANT MAN” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium, 403 N. Main St. Running time: 2 1/2 hours including intermission. Tickets: $19 Friday and Saturday; $17 others. Call 234-1112 from noon to 6 p.m. or visit www.sbct.org.