By Mark A. Leon
The latest production from Threshold Repertory Theatre exposes the deepest roots of humanity and self-realization in a poignantly emotional retelling of the story of John Merrick, whom history deemed the Elephant Man. A being so grotesque to other’s that his life was showcased as a freak show act until an unlikely relationship with Doctor Frederick Treves was forged.
This show was visualized with courage by Director Jay Danner. Theatre is a personal extension of oneself. It is the crafting of imagination and vision to create a reality that tells a story and derives personal connection from the audience. Few directors in Charleston push boundaries to tackle highly emotional and liberal subject matter with confidence and brilliance like Jay. He is a gift to the Charleston Theatre community and though he may risk alienating a conservative body of patrons, his work is nothing short of memorable.
From my initial entrance into his world with the 2016 production of “Bent” to this latest production, Jay Danner’s work needs to be seen and experienced. He is a patriarch to the arts and his interpretation of “The Elephant Man” is a testament to his fine body of work.
Two facets of the show that left a mark were the character of John Merrick (The Elephant Man) void of make-up showing his clusters of mushy skin protruding from his body and the Shakespearean silent film approach to introduce each scene of this one hour and fifty- minute single act play.
Patrick Arnheim, as the lead character of John Merrick, continues to be one of the best local acting talents in the Lowcountry. His vulnerability and innocence is so penetrating as he scales back the layers of his hideous form to uncover the man inside. With the same desires and passions, he begins to transform those around him by opening their eyes to an inner beauty that most of us never see in others. Even without make-up, his body movements and posture, allow the audience to suspend reality and see him as he was.
Though tragic in nature, this play takes on an aura of love and companionship as the relationships develop on stage. In a way, there is a theme that so many are lost and truly only want to be loved, even if it is by only one or two others. That was a message I took away long after the final line was recited.
Center stage back wall launched each scene with a brief interlude of words reminding us of the days of Chaplin and Keaton in the silent film era. As the stage lights dimmed and the white cloudy words appeared, it seemed like a human cinema reel on stage.
Kelley Swindall played the role of the actress Mrs. Kendal. As the first woman to find comfort in John and become the token of his affections, Kelley demonstrated an eclectic range of sassiness, humor and empathy. She and Frederick showed the greatest personal transformations through their very personal connection to John. It was a strong performance and a wonderfully powerful female presence to this show.
David Wohl, Brent Fox, Addison Dent, Sarah Smith and Sienna Goering all played multiple roles with poise and range. From a Duchess to a Congo Pinhead to a circus manager, each showed tremendous talent on stage supporting the ensemble cast.
History and science have ways of shocking us. John Merrick was a medical oddity, rejected by society and left for nothing more than a circus freak show act. Humanity finally stepped in and allowed him to live out the last few years of his life with dignity and for a few brief moments, love.
Threshold Repertory Theatre has brought to the stage an inspired play and one local theatre goers should take advantage of and see.