Transformation has always been a wondrously inherent part of theater magic. So, without reservation, I assure you Jared Mola’s splendidly visceral and physically impressive embodiment of John Merrick in the Dayton Theatre Guild’s excellent production of Bernard Pomerance’s thought-provoking 1979 Tony Award-winning drama “The Elephant Man” provides one of the finest transformations you’ll see on any stage in the Miami Valley this season.
Anyone familiar with Mola’s credits will not be surprised by this latest revelation. After all, he’s already proven his chameleon prowess in a string of dynamically lived-in performances ranging from dim-witted Roy Manual in “Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music” to intensely crazed Robert Renfield in “Dracula,” and most recently, the utterly distressed yet honestly hopeful Prior Walter in “Angels in America: Perestroika.” Still, John Merrick is in a completely different league because of the challenging physicality it requires. Without the benefit of makeup or prosthetics, Mola must become, with every fiber of his being, the startlingly deformed freak show attraction who ultimately and remarkably hobnobbed with the Victorian elite at London Hospital. He smoothly handles the physical stresses of this demanding exercise (you can sense the pain in his crooked posture as well as his curved hands and feet), but he’s savvy enough to ensure his incredibly astute portrayal isn’t just about physique. On the contrary, his compelling work is rooted in nuance, charm, wit, wonderment, and gratitude. As these attributes heighten the potent value of the story’s rags-to-riches allure and telling look at society’s treatment of the “other,” Merrick’s magnetism doesn’t wane. Whether facing ridicule from gawkers or an angry mob or astonishing the upper-class willing to see beyond the surface and into his soul, he commands our attention. We cannot look away, and thanks to Mola, there’s no reason why we should.
Elsewhere, Patrick Hayes, returning to the Guild stage for the first time since 2013’s “The Pillowman,” is greatly inquisitive and concerned if calculatingly cerebral as Dr. Frederick Treves, Merrick’s savior, champion and friend. Hayes navigates his complicated role well, but there are times I wish he wasn’t so emotionally reserved, particularly as Treves grows regretful and hopeless about his own insecurities. The elegant and inviting Heather Martin warmly and sophisticatedly portrays Mrs. Kendal, a celebrated actress guiding Merrick into enlightening conversations about “Romeo and Juliet” and intriguing facets of femininity. As Ross, Merrick’s shady manager, Jim Lockwood is terrifically demanding in an Act 2 showdown with Mola when Ross begs Merrick to return to the freak show. Geoff Burkman brings cool authority and scientific reasoning to his sharp portrayal of Carr Gomm, the administrator of London Hospital influential to securing funding for Merrick to remain at the hospital for life. Kevin Grego, Mark Reuter, Melissa Kerr Ertsgaard, Meredith Hollingsworth, and Lorin Dineen are firm and colorful in multiple roles.
David Shough’s deftly fluid staging, an asset considering the play’s episodic nature, is accented by his fittingly circus-inspired, Merrick-as-the-main-attraction, show-within-a-show concept and co-scenic design with Chris “Red” Newman complete with efficient moving pieces. N. Lynn Brown’s lovely assortment of attractive period costumes and J. Gary Thompson’s sound design are also praiseworthy.
One of the play’s most striking moments involves a clever role reversal in which Merrick offers a lecture on Treves’ deformities. It is the only time Mola appears outside the physical boundaries of the role, giving credence to his fascinating versatility and the overall breadth of his achievement.
“The Elephant Man” continues through April 2 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Act One: 45 minutes; Act Two: 40 minutes. Tickets are $19 for adults, $17 for seniors and $12 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit daytontheatreguild.org. Patrons are advised the play contains brief nudity.