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OLRC stages strong drama 'Elephant Man' as final summer production

By Jay Wamsley

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, July 26 2014 4:45 p.m. MDT

"THE ELEPHANT MAN," through Aug. 2, Caine Lyric Theatre, 28 W. Center, Logan (arts.usu.edu), running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes (one 10-minute intermission)

The 1979 Tony Award-winning “The Elephant Man,” which chronicles the true story of John Merrick and his caretaker Dr. Frederick Treves, breathes a breath of life into an otherwise so-so summer season of the Old Lyric Repertory Company in Logan.

As a strikingly small audience looked on, the intense and dramatic presentation of Merrick’s rise from carnival freak to object of Victorian society adoration unfolded on a spartan but efficient stage. Note that word “dramatic.” “Elephant Man” turns out to be a bold choice and effort by the Old Lyric company, and certainly one of the more significant dramas to push aside the musicals and farces that highlight most summer seasons.

This presentation of “Elephant Man” opens with what might be called a “reader’s theater-esque” look and feel. The opening scene sets the tone as characters stand and deliver monologues that describe their relationship with Merrick. Throughout the production, only a slight dimming of the stage lighting marks a change in time or venue as actors double as stagehands and move rolling stands of scenery about in quiet, choreographed fashion. The second act reinforces the reader’s theater feel with an opening that deftly uses lighting to highlight characters and their words.

Merrick (Nick Selting) is introduced to the audience as a fairground staple with his deformed body being hawked for profit by Ross (W. Lee Daily). As he becomes the object of examination by Dr. Frederick Treves (Gordon Dunn), religious and moral overtones — such as religion vs. evolution and whether Merrick “brought this on himself” — are deftly handled by the OLRC cast. Chris Klinger is admirable as Bishop William How, and Jonathan McBride is perfectly high and mighty as a superior to Treves.

An Act 1 highlight is the interaction between Merrick and Mrs. Madge Kendall (perfectly portrayed by Lacy J. Dunn), an actress commissioned by Treves to interact and draw out Merrick as Treves begins to sense the underlying wit and wisdom inside the Elephant Man’s grotesque crown. The couple’s initial meeting was fascinatingly patient and gave both Kendall and patrons a glimpse inside Merrick’s big skull — “Heads are big because the dreams can’t get out.”

Much is left to the imagination in Selting’s presentation of Merrick as deformed; he often wears only a loincloth and twists his limbs to mimic deformity. OLRC director Kenneth Risch should be congratulated for resisting the urge to overuse makeup or props to accomplish shaping this complete character. Selting did the shaping with measured movements and pointed speech.

The set design by Dennis Hassan and lighting by Anthony Johnson are top drawer, as is the costume work by Carey Hanson.

Most ancillary characters hit their strides well, with the possible exception of Nurse Sandwich (Kalilin Vannatter) who talked a bit too fast for her accent, and Tyson Baker (playing Lord John), who did not make a financial conflict with Dr. Treves the least bit understandable.

But the big picture overcame any small problems as those on stage and in the audience wrestled with conflicts of their own, including one described by Merrick late in the play: Do those with disabilities or deformities make others feel better about themselves simply by comparison?

“Elephant Man” presents mature themes in a mature way and is not intended for younger audiences. “Elephant Man” is the final of four productions, joining “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “The Musical of Musicals: The Musical” and “Tons of Money” in repertory until Aug. 2.

Jay Wamsley lives in Smithfield and covers events in and around Cache Valley. He can be reached at jaywams01@gmail.com.

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