By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Director John Demita stages the nine-member ensemble on the tiny almost bare stage around a trio of portable, translucent screens, like hospital screens, which indeed come to represent the thin veneer of privacy in the hospital clinic where Merrick (Daniel Reichert) spends his final days. (Set designed by Steven Markus.) True to the Broadway staging, and in direct contrast to Lynch’s movie, the monstrosity of Merrick’s condition is revealed without a spec of makeup or any plastic-cloth constructions. Rather, Reichert contorts his body, down to the fused fingers we hear about in the dialogue and see in projected photographs.
Beyond that, an amazing phenomenon occurs that’s been part of theater tradition for at least two and half millenia. We, as the audience, transfer what we see in the photographs and hear in the descriptions onto the actor. It’s a kind of miracle really, of imagination and perhaps of magic, supported by the horrified reactions of other characters upon seeing Merrick’s deformities for the first time.
There are two sub-themes, the first expressed earnestly by Treves, about following rules “for our own good,” an idea that Pomerance ridicules. In the clinic where Merrick finds refuge, he’s eventually visited by a stream of aristocratic visitors and well-wishers, as Treves’ deed of salvation hits the press. Among those visitors is an actress named Mrs. Kendal (rendered by Abby Craden with a marvelously imperious rigidity, like a corset around her own kindness and curiosity). Realizing that Merrick has no knowledge or experience of sex, or women, she strips for him — a scene interrupted by the outraged, rule-bound Treves, who thereafter banishes the actress from the hospital.
Mrs. Kendal, being an actress, also brings up the notion of appearances and performances, which leads Merrick to postulate that Romeo, merely checking a mirror for signs of Juliet’s breath, jumped to the conclusion of her death without sufficient evidence. That he was fooled by an appearance, and so hasty in his conclusion, shows that Romeo couldn’t have loved Juliet as he kept claiming. Romeo only loved himself, Merrick theorizes; he was in love with the idea that he was in love rather than with the person he claimed so often to cherish. This analysis of Romeo can obviously be applied to Treves and his perhaps selfish “love” of “the other” — on which he’s also building his reputation.
When Mrs. Kendal offers her hand to Merrick (after a stream of other visitors have fled in horror), Merrick cautiously, even reluctantly, holds it. A 14-year-old girl in the front row tried to contain her emotion over such a simple and common gesture between two people. The girl was still sniffling and dabbing her eyes through intermission. That’s the play’s sentimental engine in full throttle. Merrick offers not a word of the bitterness or spite that make so many hospital patients so difficult to care for. Pomerance’s Merrick is a tortured angel, something of a prophet.
The production is meticulously acted, with superb performances also by Norman Snow as hospital administrator Carr Gomm, by Brian George doubling as Merrick’s carney-barker patron-thief, as well as a local Bishop.
I wish it weren’t so staid. The director introduces his ensemble with the promising tones of a Street Violinist (Max Quill), and a juggler (Aandrea Reblynn), who returns to show how Treves’ attempts to sustain funding for a ward are a juggling act, yet the show doesn’t quite push beyond the tone of the clinic where its action finally settles — despite Kim DeShazo Wilkinson’s lush and colorful costumes.
This may be the fault of the air conditioning that generates a drone of white noise through much of the action. If actors as good as these were given a quiet space, I’m guessing this production could soar.