The doctor warns the nurse before she enters the hospital room. You've never seen a patient this disfigured and horrific before, he tells her. Prepare yourself. Nonsense, she insists. She's seen it all, including the worst diseases in Africa. There's no way she will respond with anything but compassion.
The nurse strides confidently into the room, takes one look at John Merrick -- the "Elephant Man" -- and promptly flees.
One of the fascinating things about Bernard Pomerance's 1977 Victorian-era-set play, which Fresno State is staging in a solid if slightly musty (and occasionally tedious) production, is the way it identifies with that nurse. We'd all like to think we're strong enough, both in sensibility and spirit, to look past the "surface" and see the inner beauty within a sturdy soul like Merrick. But we don't really know how we'd respond to such a situation until we were in it.
There's a lot going for this Fresno State production, including an impressive performance by a dedicated Dane Oliver as the title character -- particularly when it comes to the physicality of the role, which is traditionally done without makeup or prosthetics. Director J. Daniel Herring's staging has moments of striking grace and beauty. Marc Garcia's lighting design evokes a vintage sense. And a stirring turn by Kia Vassiliades, who portrays a famous London actress who visits Merrick in the hospital and becomes his one true friend, helps bring the play down from its sometimes bombastic moralistic questions and injects a sense of humanity.
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But the script for "The Elephant Man" is so earnest and sentimental that it wallows at times, making the intermissionless production, which clocks in a little of shy of two hours, even longer than it seems. And Oliver's purposely affected speaking style is too literal. The drawn-out inflections and slow delivery tend to flatten any rhythm the play has into a sluggish, metronome-like sameness.
The playwright portrays Merrick, who suffered from a disease that affected his bones and caused tumors to grow all over his body, in saintly terms. That conceit is reinforced by the character's first appearance in this production: He's standing with limbs twisted, head lolling to one side and wearing nothing but a Christlike loincloth, the scene a strong resemblance to the Crucifixion tableau.
We learn that Merrick spent his first miserable years in a workhouse before teaming up with a scuzzy sideshow promoter named Ross (a focused Greg Ruud), who dubs him The Elephant Man because of his grotesque appearance. That's how Frederick Treves (Dylan Curtis), a hot-shot young doctor, discovers him. He arranges to take Merrick in, and the patient's life of squalor is replaced with a far more comfortable existence.
But at what price? In his script, Pomerance repeatedly raises the theme of exhibitionism. Has Merrick simply replaced one sideshow for a more upscale version?
It's an interesting theme, but it's too heavy-handed. The playwright nearly pounds it to death even as he wraps himself up in the suffering nobility of his title character.
Then there are the Pinheads (Aubrianne Scott, Samantha Hyde and Smith), three sideshow circus performers suffering from microcephaly and mental retardation. Unlike the stage depiction of Merrick, the physical deformities of these characters are represented -- if not quite literally. With their shiny bald pates and high-pitched blather, there's something almost surreal about the way they're represented in this production. That added theatrical texture goes a way toward making this story more than just a sentimental biographical exercise.
"The Elephant Man," 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, John Wright Theatre, Fresno State. fresnostate.edu/theatrearts, (559) 278-7512. $17, $15 seniors, $10 students.
Read an extended review at fresnobeehive.com