Review: The Elephant Man

Time Out Chicago
October 25, 2007

Dr. Frederick Treves (Cox) gives us graphic descriptions of the crippling deformities of John Merrick, the man who for a few years became a celebrated figure among Victorian high society. Merrick had a series of bone deformities and cauliflower-like tumors over half his body. His head was so overgrown and misshapen that, in the play, a nurse who’s worked with lepers runs screaming at the sight of him. All we see, of course, is a handsome actor in a wheelchair—and that’s no accident.

Graney’s brought a team of storefront stalwarts with him to Steppenwolf, each of them giving it their all. We’re particularly enamored of Alison Siple’s costumes and the layered performances of Thornton as Merrick and Mojekwu as the actress who becomes his first real friend. And Pomerance’s mannered theatricalities are a good match for Graney’s listen-up, this-is-important stylistic tendencies.

Most importantly, Graney’s production is strongly informed by Thornton’s real-life story, which in most cases we’d dismiss as beside the point, but in this instance is very much a part of the point. (In a program interview, the young actor recounts the 2003 strokes that left the him paralyzed and compelled him to relearn the arts of walking and talking.) We’re reminded that Thornton’s disability is genuine by the seemingly deliberate choice of a modern steel-frame wheelchair, standing out against the period props and costumes. In a morality play asking us who defines what is normal, and particularly in a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production aimed at teenagers, Thornton and his contemporary wheelchair are a visual reminder that it could be any of us in that chair, and thus any of us in that quandary.

— Kris Vire