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.