We are drawn to stories about scary creatures that turn out to be beautiful inside. But, rarely does such a tale arise from real life.
"The Elephant Man" does. John Merrick was born in 19th-century England with a hereditary deformity so disfiguring he was dubbed "elephant man." Abandoned by his parents as a child, his survival journey makes Charles Dickens' horrors look like a cakewalk.
By adulthood, Merrick's head had swollen to a circumference of 3 feet, and bone abnormalities made one hand useless and his body horribly crippled.
The Pollard's backdrop is a crude canvas curtain suggesting a carnival tent, although it's ambiguous which side of it we're on: as viewer or exhibit. Jerome Stevenson directs a strong ensemble whose members invest the play with many potent and poignant moments.
Rebecca Wooldridge is outstanding as an actress asked to visit Merrick because she hopefully can restrain her shock at his appearance. Timothy Stewart is quite strong as Dr. Frederick Treves, although the script doesn't illustrate his emotional journey quite as clearly as Merrick's.
Ultimately, the play rests on the very capable shoulders of James Hughes, who gives Merrick full measure of things you don't expect: humor, depth and nobility. He never plays for sympathy, but takes the character on his own terms, evoking our compassion while provoking our thought.
The physical deformities are not done literally. It's the man beneath the horror at whom we're supposed to look. And Merrick teaches us that it is not the object of ridicule who is belittled, but those who perpetrate it.