BATH — A tale of tragedy, torment and triumph takes to the stage at Morse High School next weekend with “The Elephant Man.”
Directed by English and drama teacher Kevin O’Leary, the Bernard Pomerance play is based on the true story of Briton Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, and Frederick Treves, the surgeon who took both pity and interest in the deformed Merrick.
Merrick, often called John Merrick, ultimately became the toast of London, honored even by royalty, before his death in 1890 at the age of 27.
“I’m always fascinated by anything that is a play based on a real event in life,” O’Leary said on Monday. “What compels a writer to forge through something that’s already existed? … There’s something that must be remarkable about a person or an event that compels a writer to do that.”
For six years up to his death, Merrick was in Treves’ care at London Hospital, O’Leary said, “plucked from a freak show to be studied for science.”
O’Leary said his fascination with Merrick is “that somebody so physically hideous is so inwardly beautiful and brilliant and intelligent and charming.”
Merrick was both touted and exploited, O’Leary said. “It’s really Treves’ journey … he claims in the beginning of the play to bring (Merrick) in to help him in the name of science and humanity, but he questions his choices toward the end of the play: ‘was I as bad as the guy who owned him in the freak show?’”
O’Leary noted that everyone is a freak in some aspect: that the physically gorgeous may be ugly inside, or, as in Merrick’s case, that the deformed may be beautiful on the inside.
“We’re all part and parcel on sort of a pastiche of all of these things, and I’m fascinated by that,” O’Leary said. “I always have been, as an artist.”
Senior Alex McCoy plays Merrick, while junior Max Ater plays Treves and senior Hannah Gabelmann is Mrs. Kendal, a famous actress who befriends Merrick.
McCoy said the most interesting part of playing Merrick is learning out how someone with normal health can contort themselves to make the audience believe that he is malformed.
“It really makes one think about how different these people have it, when you put it to the extreme like that,” he said. “It’s the darkest example of ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover.’”
Instead of seeing Merrick’s condition as a curse, McCoy said, he has come to see it as a compromise, “because the depth of his personality compensates for his grotesque deformities.”
O’Leary said he hopes that upon leaving the play, audience members will think twice before judging people based on their outward appearance.
“There are many parents in this building who have children who struggle with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and their whole life has been a journey of advocating for their child,” O’Leary said. “If we can all advocate for all the children, that would be great.”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex McCoy plays the title role in “The Elephant Man” at Morse High School at 7 p.m. on May 14 and 15. Due to graphic video imagery and simulated disrobing in the play, parental discretion is advised.