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Every season there's at least one. A play that defies category, that takes audiences out of comfort zones, that deeply challenges. This year, “The Elephant Man” fits the bill at the Rep. The play might not appeal to everyone. It's bleak stuff after all — the story of a grotesquely deformed man, who's exploited, harassed and beaten, only to be pulled onto at least the precipice of normalcy. And that's just the surface. Beneath, there are grand themes of faith and love and the nature of beauty and no easy resolutions. The subtext is by no means impenetrable, but takes careful ears and eyes to pick through.
But what impressive, humane acting to help us along. Rep favorite Steve Wilkerson delivers a bravura performance as John Merrick, the “elephant man” of the title. Like nearly all of those before him, he tackles the role without prosthetics, but comports himself thoroughly enough that by the time he comes out for a bow, we're left blinking. This was the Elephant Man, hump-backed and crippled? It's a brilliant transformation that comes, early in the play, as Treves, a London doctor, presents Merrick, clad only in a white undershirt and shorts, to a room of medical colleagues. As Treves discusses and points to Merrick's various deformities, Wilkerson takes on each individual condition — cocking his head down and to the side, letting his mouth gape open, raising his shoulder awkwardly — until he's, truly, the embodiment of Merrick in all his grotesqueness.
Joseph Graves, back at the Rep for his 10th production in nine years, also turns in a reliably rock-solid performance as Treves, the good intentioned but patronizing doctor and caretaker to Merrick. And Val Landrum, making her Rep debut, stuns as Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends Merrick and tries — in a topless scene I suspect proved fodder for many a car ride home — to acknowledge the sexual man inside.
As usual, Mike Nichols' sets serve the play admirably. They're spare, but utilitarian in surprising ways. In the directing chair for only the second time at his new home at Wildwood, Cliff Baker makes fine use of the space, creating a whirl of activity, with actors coming onstage from all directions, including from beneath the audience. Too, he rotates a series of props — a bathtub, a great set of multifunctional dressing curtain — that illustrate scenes, but never overwhelm them.
What Baker told me before the show proved spot-on. It's a play that asks its audience to think, but one with performances and framing so strong that most anyone could find something to like. The production continues through May 10.