‘The Elephant Man’ opens at ProArts

Joseph Merrick’s story continues to fascinate audiences

Hoku Pavao Jones (from left), Ricky Jones and Francis Tau‘a star in Bernard Pomerance’s multi award-winning play, “The Elephant Man,” opening Sept. 22 at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Ricky Jones photo

Many years ago, my father attended the original Broadway production of “The Elephant Man,” and shortly thereafter, made sure that I witnessed the ABC televised version and the 1980 David Lynch film. Perhaps like Esmeralda in MAPA Live!’s recent “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” my child brain did not see John Merrick as “an animal,” but, because of his words, not only as “a human being,” but also an extremely intelligent and saintly being.

Though based on Sir Frederick Treves’ book, “The Elephant Man And Other Reminiscences,” Bernard Pomerance’s multi-award-winning play, “The Elephant Man,” which will be presented by ProArts Playhouse in Kihei beginning Sept. 22, has several historical inaccuracies such as that the real-life Joseph Merrick is referred to as John Merrick.

In contrast with the film, the play does not require prosthetic makeup. Instead, as the performance begins, the actor portraying Merrick (Ricky Jones) morphs his body while his physical disabilities are described through narration, leaving the audience to imagine his massive deformities.

Merrick is a freak show performer living in a state bordering on squalor whose life is forever changed when Treves (Francis Tau’a) agrees to care for him.

During a trip to London last month, Jones had the rare opportunity to view the permanent exhibition at the Royal London Hospital which houses Merrick’s skeleton, hood and his exquisitely crafted model of the hospital that he called “home.”

Joseph Merrick’s actual skull; Ricky Jones photo

Merrick died at age 27, but his contribution towards how society looks upon the mentally and physically challenged is immeasurable.

I asked Jones about visiting the exhibit.

“It was great to see the actual skeleton. I was surprised at how tiny he was — just 5 feet 2 inches or 5 feet 3 inches (tall). I was able to see the bone growths that were the cause of his deformities. He had hip dysplasia when he was young that was unrelated to his condition, which was the reason he had to walk with a cane, and I got to see the exact placement of the joint that was affected,” Jones shared.

“There were also several pieces of mail on display and those exact words made their way into the script. It’s all presented in chronological order so I got a good look into the entire era,” continued Jones.

“There were mentions of Jack the Ripper, which was happening at the same time, and after the time period captured in the play, there was a great deal about Treve’s career. He went on to become the Prince of Wales’ personal physician and successfully performed an appendectomy just prior to his (the Prince’s) coronation as Edward VII in 1902.”

Exquisitely crafted model of Merrick’s “home”; Ricky Jones photo

Jones was also taken by Merrick’s original head gear which hid his shocking appearance when amongst the general public.

“It looks hot and confining, which surprised me because it’s much different in the movie,” said Jones.

I asked director Sally Sefton-Johnston what inspired her to direct the play.

“I have been inspired to direct this show for the past 30 years.  This man, Joseph Merrick, has haunted me since I first encountered him in the Philip Anglim touring production. He is a man who requires that we adjust ourselves to seeing the beauty and dignity of the man behind the deformity,” she said. “These days there are many here in the U.S. who reject anyone who is different. Spending time in the company of Joseph Merrick, we know without question that his humanity is the same as ours.”

I asked her if she thought the intimacy of the ProArts Playhouse would enhance “The Elephant Man.”

The “hood” he wore as displayed at the Royal London Hospital. Ricky Jones photo

“This play deals with the theme of distancing oneself from humans that are a deviation from what we consider normal. But ProArts doesn’t allow us to have a safe  distance.  We are so close to all of the characters in this space that their story and physical presence is right in front of us, in our breathing space. We can’t look away, and for this reason this venue is perfect for this play.”

Sefton-Johnston also shared that the first national tour, which she attended while studying for her master’s degree in directing, made a lasting impression.

“I was so deeply moved by the true story of this brave, battered man that I was unable to even talk about the play for several months,” she said. “I left the theater that night with Joseph Merrick nesting in my heart and I knew that one day, I wanted to bring his story to the stage.

“I have been grateful to dig into some of the truth about Merrick’s story and Ricky has been very thorough in his research into all aspects of Merrick’s life,” she continued. “It has enriched his performance immensely.”

Jones and I discussed past acting interpretations by Anglim, David Bowie and John Hurt.

Augie T brings his “Laugh Da Island Way” comedy tour to the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku this week. Photo courtesy the artist

“I’ve only seen snippets of other stage productions which portrayed Merrick almost as if a child, which was not the case in real life. The script is not an entirely accurate version, but where the script allows, I wanted to make him the real person he was and not one-dimensional,” explained Jones. “My goal is to bring out a human so the audience can see themselves in him.”

I asked if he could share an example.

“In the Bowie version, when he first meets the actress Madge Kendal (portrayed by Hoku Pavao Jones in the ProArts version), there is a childish wonderment. I chose to portray a realistic approach to the first woman that didn’t scream and run away upon seeing him,” shared Jones. “There is a desire to connect and have a conversation with her. I would like the audience to see a real friendship and what that could have become under different circumstances.”

Sefton-Johnston singled out the same scene.

“I believe the moment when Merrick explains why he thinks Romeo doesn’t love Juliet is my favorite. We watch Mrs. Kendal change her attitude towards him on the spot. His wisdom not only surprises her, but allows for her to admire him for his insight. It is played to perfection by Hoku,” she said.

“When viewing this play, we are aware that the longer the people in London know Merrick, the more human he becomes,” continues Sefton-Johnston. “We know that Merrick doesn’t change, but rather the society evolves. That finally allows him to be more than a curiosity. Because of that he teaches us about our tendency to reject those who don’t fit our standard of normal or beautiful.”

Merrick frequently signed his letters with this adaptation of the poem “False Greatness” by 17th-century poet Isaac Watts. ” ‘Tis true, my form is something odd/ But blaming me, is blaming God,/ Could I create myself anew/I would not fail in pleasing you/If I could reach from pole to pole/Or grasp the ocean with a span/I would be measured by the soul/ The mind’s the standard of the man.”

* ProArts Playhouse in Kihei presents the multi-award winning play “The Elephant Man” from Sept. 22 through Oct. 8. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays (no performance Oct. 1). Tickets are $26. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 463-6550 or visit www.proartsmaui.com.

This week

Primo Beer and Island Air present comedian Augie T’s statewide tour “Laugh Da Island Way.” Augie T’s Maui appearance is a benefit for Maui OnStage Youth Theater.

* Performance is 8 p.m. Friday at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. General admission tickets are $20, with limited $25 VIP tickets, which include a complimentary Augie T DVD. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com.