The Elephant Man
Theatre in the Park, Raleigh
Through April 24

Perhaps the subject’s medical nature had something to do with it, but by the end of the first act of The Elephant Man at Theatre in the Park, I’d concluded it was a theatrical autopsy that stripped the title character’s tale to its bones, until the last act more fully fleshed it out.

It vexed me enough to send me back to Bernard Pomerance’s Tony Award-winning script from 1977—where I found skeletal scenes and underdeveloped characters, hobbled by exposition, throughout Act One. It’s hard to fault director Ira David Wood III for brusquely forging through such territory where he does not overcome its flaws.

There are gratifying exceptions, as when Wood’s son, Ira David Wood IV, gradually contorts his half-nude frame into the physical malformations of Joseph Merrick (erroneously named “John” by Pomerance) while his attending doctor, Frederick Treves (Wood III), narrates a report on his condition. I savored robust moments when actor Randall Stanton convincingly wheedled his way through the role of Merrick’s unsavory freak-show “manager,” Ross.

But this show’s true rewards lie in Act Two, as Wood IV and Wood III engage in Pomerance’s debate on the selective morals of Victorian England. Though stage veteran Lynda Clark is far beyond the historical age of Mrs. Kendal, a stage actor who provides Merrick entrée into royalty and London society, she brings her trademark crispness to the role.

Supporting actors were uneven, with brief but notable stands by Jim O’Brien as a sideshow manager, Bob Harris as Lord John, and Emily Compton as Princess Alexandra. But Wood III effectively probes Treves’s character as he turns toward the dark at the end, finding in Merrick’s worsening condition and deformities an unexpected mirror of his society.

Unfortunately for the doctor, and us, the final lesson here is grim. Diagnosing a culture’s pathologies is one thing. Curing them, we learn, is quite another.