Life Dramatic Tragedy on SBCT Stage

South Bend Civic Theatre production of The Elephant ManSOUTH 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

ECT Team Puts New Spin on Old Tales

BRISTOL — It’s worth taking a trip to the Bristol Opera House this weekend to check out what’s bright and new on the theatrical horizon via Elkhart Civic Theatre. The vehicles of choice here are two one-act fantasies — “Brothers Grimm: Out of Order” and “Rapunzel” — presented by the ECTeam Youth Theatre, a program of shows for young people produced and performed by young people which, incidentally, is a delightful hour and a half (plus intermission) for the entire family.

xBoth pieces are definitely not David Mamet or even Neil Simon but the premise — take familiar fairy tales (or tale) and give them a new twist  — as detailed by a definitely engaging cast of players, is presented with assurance and pizzazz (LOVED the Glumpwarts in “Rapunzel,” skritchy, squeeky sidekicks of the villainess, Witch Izwitch) and the “Out of Order” banter of the Director (TV) and Producer (stage) and playwrights Will (Disney) and Jake Grimm (Tarantino) as well as the definite diva-ship of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Gretel and Jorinda. “Out of Order” is set in a school where the theater program hangs on the success of the production (that the judging principal is named Guffman tells a lot to Christopher Guest fans). “Rapunzel,” which takes place in the Kingdom of Ain’t, sticks more closely to the familiar tale of the girl in the tower with the super long hair. But there are enough twists to keep you laughing. (Spoiler: She is saved by the scientific prince whose claim to fame is growing hair on an egg. You figure it out.) Under the direction of Annette Kaczanowski and assistant director Scott Fowler, the 30-plus cast members are articulate and audible (a problem even with adults), do a good job of maintaining their kooky characters, never an easy assignment, and most definitely  are having a good time. There is no doubt the audience will, too.

“BROTHERS GRIMM: OUT OF ORDER”/”RAPUNZEL” will be presented at 7 p.m. today and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House. For tickets, 848-4116 between 1 and 5;30 p.m. today and at the box office.

"Rabbit Hole" Deals with Family Tragedy

SOUTH BEND — A drama that looks at the most heart-wrenching tragedy that can befall a family is the current production of South Bend Civic Theatre. “Rabbit Hole,” the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner by David Lindsay-Abaire, focuses on four months in the lives of Becca and Howie, a young couple still reeling from the death eight months earlier of their four-year-old son Danny; of Becca’s sister Izzy and mother Nat and of Jason, the teenage driver responsible for Danny’s death.

Rabbit Hole at South Bend Civic TheatreEach is dealing with the loss in his/her own way. For Becca, this means holding on to her emotions and systematically getting rid of reminders of their son: clothes, toys and “stuff” to charity or to Izzy, unmarried but expecting her own child; Danny’s dog to Nat; and selling their house. Conversely, Howie wants the “stuff,” he wants the dog back and is angered by Becca’s actions, which he looks on as “trying to get rid of Danny.”   His attempts “to make things nice,” including a return to intimate relations, is met by his wife’s stoic declaration that “Things will never be ‘nice’.” He agrees to put the house on the market but grieves alone watching a home video of his son. His anger finally erupts when he discovers Becca has recorded over the video.

Their lives have become a series of strained silences and awkward exchanges. The tension is not eased by Izzy’s pregnancy with her musician boyfriend and her belief that her baby will make her mature, or boozy Nat’s raucous and mostly inappropriate  humor.  Jason attempts to apologize and gives Becca his short science fiction story describing the theory of rabbit holes in the cosmos leading to another version of life in a parallel universe.

In the end, Becca and Howie are still uncertain about their future but he assures her “I think we will figure it out.”


Figuring it out is what “Rabbit Hole”is about, and each of the protagonists has his/her own way of coping with unthinkable tragedy. There is humor — albeit it frequently dark — throughout the SBCT production, most of it generated by Crystal Ryan’s Izzy, who creates a very empathetic and most believable character. As Becca, Nicole Brinkman Reeves is appropriately emotionally void and SBCT veteran Michael Coffee struggles admirably  with support for his wife and his own pain, although the backwoodsman-style beard  seems at odds with the upscale Larchmont, N.Y. locale. Chester Shepherd’s Jason is another low-key character and his final interaction with Becca is primarily one long, unaffecting silence after another. As played by Mary Toll, Nat is an incredibly annoying caricature. The set designed by David Chudszynski and director Doug Streich,  utilized the space in the Warner Studio Theater well but the costumes were, at best, unflattering. I have to say I went prepared to get out my handkerchief, which seemed only  appropriate given the premise of “Rabbit Hole,” Unfortunately, it never left my purse.

“Rabbit Hole” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre in the theater at 403 N. Main St. South Bend. For tickets and performance times call (574) 231-1112 or visit’Ra bbit