Metro-East Living

‘Elephant Man’ has message of acceptance

Mitch Ellis-Yapp portrays John Merrick, a severely handicapped young man from Victorian England in “The Elephant Man” which will be onstage this weekend and next at Looking Glass Playhouse in Lebanon.
Mitch Ellis-Yapp portrays John Merrick, a severely handicapped young man from Victorian England in “The Elephant Man” which will be onstage this weekend and next at Looking Glass Playhouse in Lebanon. Provided

“The Elephant Man” is a play you won’t soon forget.

It’s based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a disfigured and deformed man who lived in Victorian England during the 1860s. Merrick’s life revolves around being a side-show freak until a surgeon takes an interest and rescues him. Folks begin to see that there’s much more to Merrick than a monstrous face. He is intelligent and sensitive.

“The Elephant Man” premiered on Broadway in 1979 with Philip Anglim in the title role. Anglim earned a Best Actor Tony Award nomination, and the play was awarded the Tony for Best Play that season. A 1980 film adaptation starred John Hurt. Bradley Cooper played Merrick in a recent revival.

Looking Glass Playhouse will present the play based on Merrick’s life this weekend and next in Lebanon.

“He was a victim of his times,” said director Kathleen Dwyer. “He had constraints, in freedom, ability to move. He was constantly being hounded by others, but had a fantastic attitude. He was kind and sweet and a very tender, tender person, in spite of his deformity. He is a dreamer. He has his wishes. He’s a romantic. When he meets a woman who will look at him and not scream in horror, he blossoms. That’s happy.”

Merrick has something in common with everyone.

“We all have things that limit us,” she said. “He was capable of so much more than people thought he was. He was written off by many as an imbecile. In reality, he was very difficult to understand. His way of communicating was garbled. We needed him to be intelligible.”

And captivating.

Mitch Ellis-Yapp plays Merrick.

“He has done many shows here,” said Kathleen, a chemistry teacher at Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School. “People who know and love him will be surprised at other side of him. He was the Donkey in ‘Shrek.’ He was hysterically funny and animated. He has a beautiful singing voice. This summer, he was Billy Flynn, a smooth-talking lawyer in the musical ‘Chicago’ in Highland. This is a completely different role. He’s a very talented actor.”

It’s the first time in a long time Mitch has been in a drama.

“I don’t have to learn any music,” he said. “It’s an honor and a joy. I have a deep connection with the role. I’m just attached to the character. I couldn’t be more pleased to be playing him. I’m actually proud.”

Mitch prepared for the role by looking at photographs of Joseph Merrick (called “John” in the play), learning about Merrick’s personality and experimenting with what his own body could do.

In the opening scene, Mitch as Merrick appears on stage wearing just underwear.

“Dr. Fred Treves is going through an entire list of his ailments,” said Mitch. “I start off as a blank slate. As he describes each ailment, I take it on.”

“We were all just mesmerized by the transformation,” said Kathleen. “In the movie, they used a very authentic makeup, the cast of the original Merrick. In the play, it is definitely depicted through the physicality of the actor.”

Physically contorting his body for the length of the play is a challenge for Mitch, but not the biggest.

The bigger challenge is taking on the feeling of being lonely, rejected. I was having nightmares after the first few rehearsals. A relentless feature of the dreams: I felt lonely. There were a lot of tears. I never had a character follow me home and inhabit my dreams.

Mitch Ellis-Yapp on playing the Elephant Man

“The bigger challenge is taking on the feeling of being lonely, rejected,” he said. “I was having nightmares after the first few rehearsals. A relentless feature of the dreams: I felt lonely. There were a lot of tears. I never had a character follow me home and inhabit my dreams.

“I have known some folks who have dealt with handicaps throughout their lives, but nothing to this magnitude. This poor man couldn’t run away. He couldn’t fight back. He was definitely on the outside. We all have our moments. A zit pops up. Hair doesn’t go the way we want. It’s only going to last for a little while. This man, it’s his entire life.”

Anything fun about the role?

“There are actual moments of humor,” said Mitch, who works in Garden Center at Eckert’s in Belleville. “Joseph Merrick is actually quite witty. He does tend to brighten the heavy moments of the show.”

Anything that the audience should watch for?

“Note the incredible set and lighting,” said Kathleen, talking about the job husband Rob Lippert does. “How beautifully it enhances the telling of the tale.”

Watch the cathedral that Merrick is building.

“It’s a metaphor for the growth process of Mr. Merrick and Dr. Treves,” Kathleen said.

Dan Schmid plays Frederick Treves. Also appearing are Len Adams, Patrick Donnigan, Brandon McNutee, Rachel Mullis, Mike Russell, Melanie Kozak, Dyan Hansen and Kelsey Belt. Mike Russell is assistant director. Keep an eye on these characters and their varied roles.

“A nurse turns into a policeman,” said Kathleen. “A pinhead turns into a princess. It’s a challenge for them as well.”

There’s a challenge for the audience, too.

“What I hope they glean from this is a higher sense of compassion,” said Mitch. “There’s a quote floating around right now that goes something like, ‘Be kind, always. Every person you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. You have no idea what it’s like for anyone else. Be as kind and pleasant as you possbly can.’”

Maureen Houston: 618-239-2664, @mhouston15

Looking Glass Playhouse

  • What: “The Elephant Man”
  • Where: Lebanon
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14 and 2 p.m. Sunday Nov. 8 and 15
  • Cost: $9-$12
  • Reservations: Encouraged and may be made online, although patrons withou Internet access may still place orders by phone.
  • Contact: www.lookingglassplayhouse.com or 618 537-4962
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