The difference between a man’s appearance and his character is one of the main subjects of the play “The Elephant Man.”
“It’s a ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ story, in the extreme,” said John Fogle, who directed the production currently appearing at the Salem Theatre Company.
John Merrick — the elephant man — was born in 1862 with severe deformities that contorted his appearance. He is portrayed by Marc St. Pierre, who lives in Gloucester.
“He’s a well-known yoga instructor, which is very useful in the play, since he has so much body work to do,” Fogle said.
The play, written by Bernard Pomerance in 1977, was based on an account of Merrick’s life written by his doctor, Frederick Treves.
Treves is played by Joseph O’Meara of Boston, who has appeared in several Salem Theatre Company productions, including last season’s “Shining City.”
“Merrick’s mother died and his father died and he was thrown into a workhouse as a young person,” Fogle said. “It was a miserable existence.”
But Merrick’s character and spirit were admirable almost to the degree that his body — and circumstances — were misshapen.
“He turns out to be a very sensitive and intelligent person, who is virtuous and a bit of a philosopher,” Fogle said.
Merrick’s admirable nature becomes apparent through his relationships with the other characters in the play.
“There is one woman in particular, an actress, Mrs. Kendall, who becomes a frequent visitor, and they have a certain kind of relationship,” Fogle said. “It is through Mrs. Kendall that we see some of what Merrick has in common with all of us — how horribly disfigured he was, and yet how much like everyone else he is.”
Treves, who rescued Merrick from his occupation as a human curiosity, contrasts with his famous patient in several ways.
“Treves’ motivations are complex,” Fogle said. “His interest is scientific, and then it becomes altruistic, and then utterly egotistical.”
The contrast between substance and appearance, which says so much about Merrick’s character, also figures in the staging of the play.
“The Elephant Man” is told in 21 brief scenes, which are introduced to the audience by subtitles.
“They remind the audience that they aren’t looking at something real,” Fogle said. “The play is not trying to create a slice of life on stage. It’s something that is artificial, and it’s there to make you think about the production, not just experience it, not just get the story.”
Fogle enhances this awareness by letting the audience see “the wheels move” behind the curtains as scenes are changed. This deliberately contrasts the theater experience with watching a movie.
“They’re told how to feel with soundtrack,” he said of a movie. “Special effects can do anything, no imagination on the part of the viewer is needed.
“Theater suggests, it does not present. Theater requires the audience to participate in completing the picture.”
In “The Elephant Man,” this is especially the case in the presentation of Merrick’s deformities, which the playwright says should not be evoked by prostheses.
“It’s specifically written in a certain way,” Fogle said. “In the scene where Merrick is presented to the doctors, the actor is transformed from a very healthy physical specimen into this crippled character before the audience’s eyes.
“That’s theatrical. What makes this play effective is that it’s so theatrical, and asks the audience to participate. They have to use their imagination.”
If you go What: "The Elephant Man," by Bernard Pomerance. When: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., through Feb. 15 Where: Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem, Mass. How: General admission $25, seniors $20, students $10. Available online at www.salemtheatre.com or by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111.