By Connie McDougall

Performance Dates for
The Elephant Man
January 25-27, February 1-3
All performances are at 7:30 p.m., with an additional 2:00 p.m. matinee on Saturday, February 3. For tickets,
call 206/281-2959.

SPU's production of The Elephant Man focuses on a period in the life of the 19th century physician Frederick Treves, played by Matthew Blackwell Kinney (right). The historical photo of Treves was provided by the Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Homecoming Play Explores a Doctor's
Spiritual Crisis

Most people know something about the story of Joseph Merrick, "The Elephant Man." Born in England in 1860, Merrick suffered a disease that left him horribly disfigured. He wrote in his autobiography that his deformation was caused by his mother being frightened by an elephant when she was pregnant. Modern scientists now believe he suffered from a rare disease called Proteus Syndrome, which causes abnormal bone and skin growth.

Merrick made a living as a carnival freak, until he was "rescued" by Dr. Frederick Treves, who brought him to London Hospital. Treves raised funds that allowed Merrick to live in the hospital permanently, and he became a cause celebre in London society. In spite of his infirmity, Merrick was described as having great intelligence and gentle ways. He apparently had artistic skill as well. With only one good arm and hand, he learned to paint and build intricate models of churches.

Merrick died in London Hospital at the age of 27. Dr. Treves wrote about the young man: "One thing that always struck me as sad about Merrick was the fact that he could not smile. Whatever his delight may be his face remained expressionless. He could weep, but he could not smile."

Even so, the story of Merrick and Treves is not depressing, says Seattle Pacific University Professor Emeritus James Chapman. He emphasizes that people should not confuse the well-known movie The Elephant Man with the play by the same name. "The movie concentrated on stark reality and was grim, but the play is very different," says Chapman. "It has high aspirations. There's a lot of humor in it, and there's a focus on human values and spiritual growth. The play asks the question, 'What is normal?'"

While the movie focused on Merrick and his pain, the play deals with Dr. Treves' growing spiritual crisis. As a result, normalcy is set on its ear, says Chapman. The doctor, successful and ambitious, is spiritually bankrupt. The hideous and malformed Merrick develops true humanity.

"So the audience ends up asking, 'What is normal?'" says Chapman. "We all make assumptions about people based on things like beauty, race and material possessions. And those assumptions may or may not be right."

Because the play centers on a process of spiritual growth, it seemed perfect for Homecoming, Chapman notes. "Alumni are coming back to their academic 'home.' They'll see a play that is not just entertaining, but that truly does 'engage the culture.' I believe they'll take away something meaningful."

The play is also relevant to the Common Curriculum, a series of seven courses required of all SPU students. In University Core 1000 (UCOR), all freshmen will read the play and take part in a plenary session led by the theatre faculty. The students will then attend a performance, later discussing it in class.

Theatre Department Chair Don Yanik, who designed the set for The Elephant Man, believes the play fits the Common Curriculum well. "In UCOR, we want to explore questions such as, 'What does it mean to be human?' 'How do Christianity and art interact?' and 'What choices does an artist make?' All of these issues come together in this play."

Daniel Flint, a 1995 Seattle Pacific theatre graduate who plays Merrick in the production, agrees there is plenty for the audience to wrestle with. "We all want to be accepted, to be normal. Ultimately, The Elephant Man is a witty and uplifting story about metamorphosis," he says.

Flint doesn't wear a costume or makeup to create the look of malformed limbs. Rather, the character's ailment is suggested by contortions of the body, an acting challenge that Flint finds deeply moving. "I thought about what it would be like to be Merrick -- this romantic soul trapped in a deformed body."

Flint says he felt sorrow as well as compassion.

Seattle actor Matthew Blackwell Kinney approaches the role of Dr. Treves with a degree of sympathy. "I think the doctor is trying to perform his duties with the tools he's been given," says Kinney. "At first he's very removed, but he changes." Indeed, the ability to change and grow underscores the play's relevance, he adds. "Change is a big part of the college experience, and this play illustrates that extremely well."

Performance Dates for The Elephant Man
January 25-27, February 1-3
All performances are at 7:30 p.m., with an additional 2:00 p.m. matinee on Saturday, February 3. For tickets, call 206/281-2959.

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