“People are frightened by what they don’t understand,” observes John Merrick, the titular character in The Elephant Man. At George Mason High School, the cast set out to try and make us understand just who he was.
Written in 1977 by Bernard Pomerance, The Elephant Man is a play based on the life on Joseph Merrick, a severely disfigured man living in England in the late 1800s. It chronicles the story of how Merrick, or “The Elephant Man,” traveled from circus to circus as a part of freak shows until he was finally taken in by Dr. Frederick Treeves, and given a room at the hospital to call home. The rest of the play tells the story of Treeves’ attempts to give Merrick a better, more “normal” life, caring for him, bringing him visitors from high society, and allowing him a place to stay and people to talk to.
A student directed show, Bryan Ward and Rebecca Thackery worked to make the show different by adding a few silent scenes in between scripted ones to show traveling and the passage of time. In addition to these scenes, they used symbolism during Treeves’ dream sequence to add a new layer to his confusion, covering him in roses rather than thorns and confining him in a corset to show the confinement of his society and their ability to take away the best parts of something rather than trying to prune its thorns. While some of their staging struggled to make order of the dozens of actors on stage, they put up a great effort to show Merrick and his isolation from society through the course of the play.
Sean Driggers did a fantastic job as John Merrick, renamed by the playwright due to his incorrect naming in the notes of his caretaker. His crumpled physicality and scrunched face as he spoke created the character known as the Elephant Man without any sort of makeup or prosthetics. He remained clear and easy to understand through his character voice, and even had traces of a British accent showing through. Opposite him, Sam Blagg portrayed the role of Dr. Frederick Treeves. Even without a microphone, Blagg projected his voice loudly and clearly, and managed to keep a solid accent throughout his performance, keeping his choices clear and deliberate as an actor.
Two dark horses from the ensemble were Joseph Warren (Ross) and Kiki Skotte (Mrs. Kendall), as the leader of the freak show and an actress sent by Dr. Treeves to talk to Merrick, respectively. Warren did a fantastic job portraying such a rough, cruel character, keeping a solid cockney accent throughout. Skotte played his polar opposite, caring and kind, and both managed to steal the show.
Behind and around the actors, the sets were an integral part of the show, and included a series of projections on the back cyclorama curtain that set the scene for everything from a crowded London street to a Victorian-era hospital. Along with these scenes, the lighting design perfectly created the atmosphere of a rainy day or a sunrise at dawn. In addition, a series of music selections transported the viewer to a Victorian-era carnival, harbor, and hospital alike.
At one point in the show, Lady Gomm remarks “I don’t believe any of us can [imagine the life Merrick has had],” and perhaps that’s true, but George Mason High School made a valiant attempt to show their own interpretation of how it may have gone.
Abby Picard is a student at Westfield High School and a member of Cappies, the Critics and Awards Program for High School Theatre and Journalism.