Reviewed by George Basler

At the beginning of The Elephant Man, John Merrick lets out an anguished howl of a man who has lost all hope. As played by Parker Howland, it’s a striking moment in the play that is in the middle of a three-weekend run at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center in Owego.

Howland’s skillful and sensitive performance is at the center of the production, which recounts the life of Merrick, a horribly deformed man who lived in England in the latter part of the 19th century. Abandoned as a boy, he became a sideshow freak — the “Elephant Man” — before being rescued by Dr. Frederick Treves, who gave him refuge in a London hospital. (Merrick’s condition, Proteus Syndrome, was at first diagnosed as elephantiasis.)

Howland plays the physically demanding role with no prosthetics. Instead, he uses facial expressions and body movement, along with vocal inflections, to capture the extent of Merrick’s deformities. It’s masterfully done.

Equally important, the performance movingly captures the key traits of Merrick’s personality that were buried under a grotesque exterior, such as his sensitivity, sense of humor, intelligence and, ultimately, his sense of loneliness. 

Ryan Canavan also gives a strong performance as Dr. Treves. The character is a complex one. While he’s motivated by a desire to rescue Merrick, he also has rigid and uncompromising views, illustrated by Canavan’s stiff posture and clipped speech pattern. As Merrick perceptively observes, Treves “cannot distinguished between the assertion of authority and the charitable act of giving.”

Howland and Canavan’s performances are two reasons to see the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players’ production, which runs through April 21. The direction by Zach Curtis is also solid as the action unfolds in 21 scenes. But the play by Bernard Pomerance is not completely satisfactory. His writing is curiously flat and overly dense at times, and some of the early scenes are difficult to follow.

The Elephant Man raises a provocative point. At the hospital, Merrick becomes the object of fascination for some members of the upper crust British society, who visit him before his untimely death. But the play hints that the visitors don’t accept Merrick as an equal. Instead, they view their noblesse oblige as something that inflates their own self-worth,

The play implies that Treves and hospital administrators put Merrick on display in the same way he was exhibited in the freak show. Think of modern-day “reality television” transported to the 19th century.

Canavan plays Treves as someone who values his self-control and rationality.  That makes a scene near the end of the play, when the doctor suffers a crisis of confidence, a searing moment. Treves’ cool demeanor is replaced by rage and anguish as he realizes Merrick’s death is near. Canavan seems to come apart emotionally on the stage as the doctor questions his motives and job as a physician.

Also compelling are the scenes between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal, a prominent actress recruited by Treves to visit the deformed man in the hospital. In a very real way, the relationship between the two characters is the emotional heart of the play. Of all his visitors, Kendal is the one person who responds to Merrick as an equal.

Andrea Gregori performs the actress role with a regal bearing that captures Kendal’s showy personality, as well as her warmth and understanding. In a key scene, the actress undresses for Merrick after he tells her that he has never seen a naked woman. (Gregori is seen as a shadow behind a screen.) As played by Gregori and Howland, it’s a beautiful and touching moment.

Other scenes, involving subplots that Pomerance has squeezed into The Elephant Man, don’t work as well. For example, a subplot about a financial scandal at the hospital, is almost incomprehensible.

Pomerance has also under-written two prime secondary characters. One is a kindly clergyman who visits Merrick in the hospital; the other is the hospital’s officious administrator. They are well played by Josh Wilburn and Jamie Cornell respectively, but Pomerance never really digs beneath their surface.

Pomerance does a more effective job with Ross, a sleazy promoter who treats Merrick horribly while exhibiting him in freak shows. (Wilburn does double duty, portraying this character as well as the bishop.) While Ross is undoubtedly reprehensible, he also is suffering from his own physical and emotional anguish. This makes him relatable, if not sympathetic.

Cellist Amy Frankovich provides some mood music between scenes that enhances the action.

The Elephant Man is not a perfect play, but it is a thoughtful and interesting one. If nothing else, it reminds us we should look at people we deem as “freakish” with a sense of understanding. The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players deserve credit for taking it on.

IF YOU GO: The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players will continue to present The Elephant Man the weekends of April 12-14 and April 19-21 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.