by Bernard Pomerance


The Footlight Players

Charleston, South Carolina

October 2003

Poignant tale of a gentle soul


Post & Courier Reviewer 10/26/03

Joseph Carey Merrick, aka John Merrick, aka The Elephant Man, was one of the 19th-century’s truly pitiable figures. He was born in 1860 and by the age of 2 was being plagued by strange tumors growing out of his head. By the time Merrick was in his teens, he looked like some strange monster from horror fiction. Worse yet, his skin sagged and looked like cauliflower, and it had a repulsive smell.

Tormented and shunned by nearly everyone, Merrick was finally rescued from a freak show by a doctor named Treves, who moved him into a hospital where he lived to the age of 27. He died, probably mercifully, in 1890.

What gives Merrick’s story a particular poignancy was that, deep inside his monstrous face and body, there glowed a gentle soul and a high intelligence. He had a sense of humor, too. When his keepers assured him that they were merciful, Merrick remarked, “If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”

Merrick became an attraction in British upper-class society, which thrilled to his bizarre looks and squirmed under his penetrat-ing conversation. He eventually died in the same hospital in which he had lived his adult life. His head had grown so large and heavy that the weight crushed his windpipe. Merrick has no grave, but his skeleton is on display to this very day in London.

The tale of the Elephant Man caught the attention of playwright Bernard Pomerance, who in 1979 made it into a play that later became a successful film. The play ventured no monster makeup for Merrick, playing him instead as a normal, radiantly healthy young man and indicating his deformity by a twisted posture. The later film used full makeup. Each approach worked well for its genre.

At Footlight Players, The Elephant Man is mightily effective, especially in the casting and performances of the three principals: Matthew Crosby as Merrick, Libby Campbell-Turner as Mrs. Kendall, and David Walker as Treves. Crosby doesn’t try for an acrobat-style bodily deformity, merely suggesting such posture with the aid of a cane. But he looks touchingly healthy, and he creates a vivid, crisply spoken portrait of Merrick.

Ms. Campbell-Turner is terrific as Mrs. Kendall, an actress determined to ease Merrick’s loneliness. She has a rough “I’ve seen everything” attitude, and her voice is hard, but she can soften it to a caress. She and Mr. Crosby were heartbreaking in the would-be love scene in the second act, when Treves unexpectedly enters the room to find the actress half nude and Merrick gazing silently at her, murmuring, “It is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen, ever.”


Elephant Man’ offers superb dramatic performances


The Post & Courier​ 10/10/03

The line that separates what is fascinating from what is abhorrent is a thin one, indeed.

This is just one premise explored in The Elephant Man, which opened Thursday at the Footlight Players with superb performances by Matthew Crosby as David Merrick, the horribly malformed “elephant man,” and David J.C. Walker as the compassionate, if rigid, Dr. Frederick Treves.

Winner of three Tony Awards in 1979 and the Pulitzer Prize for drama for playwright Bernard Pomerance, the script of The Elephant Man holds up well as it traces the life of the unfortunate Merrick, born in 1862 and sent to a workhouse as a child, later to make his living as an exhibition at a fair for crowds to ridicule. This sorry stage brings to mind Aristotle’s famous maxim: “Small boys throw stones at the frogs in jest, but the frogs die in earnest.”

Unlike the film, which featured Merrick in makeup and prosthesis, the play calls for the audience to largely use its imagination as to what horror Merrick’s figure and face might conjure. Crosby, a recent College of Charleston graduate, subtly twists his body and mouth in a grotesque manner, but no makeup is used. Crosby is especially effective when he is near the end of his life and can ask the hard questions of those around him.

Director Steve Lepre expertly used a superb set designed by Richard Heffner to allow multiple characters to express their feelings regarding Merrick by opening shutters that overlook Merrick’s hospital room. After Treves writes a letter to the London Times regarding Merrick’s plight, contributions pour into the hospital to keep Merrick there for life where he can be cared for properly.

Walker, formerly of New York, was brilliant as Treves, particularly when he showed his frustration that “as Merrick achieved greater normalcy in his life, he moved closer to the grave.” While Treves appears to have everything, he is tortured by the things he can’t change.

Terrific and funny in her role as an actress who is able to look beyond physical appearances is Libby Campbell-Turner, who is about to sleep with Merrick when Treves, a stickler for rules, angrily bursts into the room.

Taking several roles but mainly that of hospital administrator is John Edwards, who conveys dual personality traits of excessive practicality and an honest conscience.



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