WATERTOWN — Early in the second act of New Repertory Theatre’s quietly wrenching production of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man,’’ a host of people — a doctor, a hospital administrator, a princess, a bishop — profess to identify with John Merrick, the horribly deformed title character.
Merrick is practical, one says, “like me.’’ He is discreet, says another, “like me.’’ He is “curious, compassionate, concerned about the world,’’ says another, adding “rather like myself.’’ And so on, as if Merrick is a mirror, or perhaps a kind of screen on which they can project their idealized selves.
Only one of them really ventures beyond objectification and self-congratulation or self-pity: an actress named Mrs. Kendal, played by Valerie Leonard. Mrs. Kendal describes Merrick as “hurt. And helpless not to show the struggling. And so am I.’’ This acknowledgment of not just their shared predicament but their shared humanity is all the more moving because Merrick’s life is otherwise characterized by a terrible isolation.
There was reason to wonder how well Pomerance’s play would hold up, whether it would register as just one of a spate of socially conscious dramas that emerged in the 1970s and early 1980s, such as “The Shadow Box,’’ “Whose Life Is It Anyway?,’’ and “Children of a Lesser God.’’ But “The Elephant Man’’ retains its power to shake us to our depths. Unfolding in a series of brief but indelible scenes, it is directed at New Rep by Jim Petosa with both expressivity and restraint, and features a performance of exceptional skill, heart, and conviction by Tim Spears, as Merrick.
Beyond the excellent particulars of this production and the enduring quality of Pomerance’s writing, “Elephant Man’’ hits home because the playwright subtly forces us to consider something we usually prefer to keep lodged deep in the subconscious place where we hide uncomfortable truths: Namely, that what befell Merrick could happen to absolutely anyone, extreme though it may have been; that an utterly random quirk of fate could bend the trajectory of our lives toward horror.
He is us, in other words, and we are him, if not in the glib and facile way subscribed to by the princess et al.
Spears, who played Mozart in New Rep’s “Amadeus’’ last season, contorts his face, body, and voice to suggest Merrick’s physical and psychological torment. But the actor wears no masks. We are largely required to use our imaginations — and the reactions of other characters — when it comes to gauging the extent and effect of Merrick’s ghastly appearance, a combination of skin growths and bone disorders. The set designed by Jon Savage consists of black panels whose smoked plexiglass occasionally throws back reflected images of the audience, as if we are voyeurs to, and implicated in, Merrick’s suffering.
When we first encounter him, Merrick is eking out an existence by working in a freak show in 1880s London. The show’s reprehensible but somehow not entirely despicable impresario is portrayed by Joel Colodner with that fine actor’s usual knack for swift and vivid characterization. Daniel MacLean Wagner’s shadowy lighting augments the oppressive sense of gloom and despair.
Then Merrick is discovered by Frederick Treves, an ambitious young surgeon and anatomical expert. Treves, played with a nice balance of starchy certitude and vulnerability by Michael Kaye, brings Merrick to the London Hospital for observation and care. When even a nurse who has worked with lepers reels away in revulsion from Merrick, Treves hits upon the idea of enlisting an actress, professionally schooled in masking her emotions, to give Merrick some human contact.
Mrs. Kendal brings out the best in Merrick: his intelligence, his playful wit, his combination of clear-eyed clarity and long-buried romantic longing. Their relationship has elements of what Shakespeare called a “marriage of true minds,’’ and Leonard’s disciplined, well-modulated portrayal of the actress is central to the equation. The compassion beneath Mrs. Kendal’s arch manner is understated but palpable.
In the original London and Broadway productions of “The Elephant Man,’’ a cellist was part of the cast, but Petosa has opted for an oboist, Louis Toth. An unobtrusive presence at the front of the stage in the Charles Mosesian Theater, Toth periodically underscores the action by playing a few notes that, like the production itself, are spare, haunting, and just right.