By George Basler

The Tony Award-winning play The Elephant Man shows how intelligence and inner beauty can be hidden under a grotesquely ugly exterior.

“It’s beautifully written and tells a fascinating story,” said Zach Curtis, who is directing a production at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center in Owego, It opens Friday (April 5) for a three-weekend run

Written by British playwright Bernard Pomerance, The Elephant Man is based on the life of John Merrick, who lived in London during the latter part of the 19th century. Merrick’s early life was filled with heartache and cruelty. An incurable medical condition, Proteus syndrome, left him horribly deformed. Rejected by his family, he was warehoused in an institution before becoming an attraction, known as “The Elephant Man,” in a traveling freak show.

His life changed dramatically when Dr. Frederick Treves rescued him and housed him in London Hospital to study his condition. There, researchers discovered Merrick was an intelligent and sensitive person. He became a well-known figure among upper class members of Victorian society, who came to visit him until his premature death in 1890 at age 27.

Curtis, who is producing artistic director of the Chenango River Theatre in Greene, said he signed on to direct the Ti-Ahwaga production after being approached by members of the Owego theater company. He had directed The Elephant Man once before in 2002, at the start of career, and found it a rewarding experience.

“I loved the show but never got the chance to direct it again,” he said.

Pomerance’s play, which premiered in 1977, covers some of the same incidents as the 1980 film The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Treves. But the play is more truthful to Merrick’s life than the film, Curtis said.

There is another major difference as well. When he wrote the play, Pomerance directed that the actor playing Merrick use no makeup or prosthetics. Instead, the actor must use facial and body contortions to give the effect of the character’s deformities. The purpose is to have audiences focus on Merrick’s interior qualities as a man rather than his visible defects.

The Elephant Man ran for 916 regular performances in its original Broadway production and has been revived several times. Actors who have portrayed Merrick include Philip Anglim, David Bowie, Mark Hamill and Bradley Cooper.

Parker Howland is playing the physically taxing role of Merrick in the Ti-Ahwaga production. Howland is a graduate of Johnson City High School and SUNY New Paltz with a degree in Theatre Arts Performance and a minor in playwriting. He worked as an extra in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel television series when episodes were filmed in Deposit.

Dr. Teves is being played by Ryan Canavan, a local actor who has appeared throughout the region. His latest appearance at Ti-Ahwaga was as the Emcee in Cabaret. He also recently acted the part of Romeo in an immersive production of Romeo and Juliet at the Phelps Mansion Museum in Binghamton.

Curtis is directing a seven-member cast (three of whom play multiple roles) through 21 scenes that encompass Merrick’s life. “The biggest challenge is getting the transitions right,” he said, adding a main element in the production will be a cello accompaniment by Amy Frankovich.

Curtis called The Elephant Man “plain, beautiful and straightforward” and said the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players deserve credit for presenting the serious, emotionally moving work. The play reaffirms the age-old truism that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” he added.

IF YOU GO: The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players will present The Elephant Man April 5-21 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets at $25 ($20 for students and for ages 65 and over) are available at or by calling 607-687-2130.