Wayland to bring dramatic tale to Spencer stage

May 26, 2010     

For the fifth year in a row, Wayland Baptist University will bring a production from the theatre department to the stage of the Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts in Ruidoso, N.M.

The play The Elephant Man will be performed on June 18 as part of the Sacramento Mountain Theatre Collaborative, which involves current high school students and Wayland students along with faculty and alumni in a three-week, intensive theatre immersion experience.

Dr. Marti Runnels, theatre professor and director at Wayland, directs the program and is especially excited at the prospect of bringing yet another project to the stellar Spencer facility. This production in particular is dear to Runnels, who directed the piece in 2002 at the university.

The play by Bernard Pomerance is based on the true story of 19th Century Englishman Joseph “John” Merrick, a horribly disfigured man who makes his living in the freak shows because his condition prevents any other employment.

“Merrick has basically been forced into this life of a nightmare where people come to look at him and gawk or make fun of him,” Runnels said. “That’s his livelihood, and another man has used Merrick to make money for himself.”

When a noble doctor comes along with offers to house Merrick in a hospital where he’ll be in a safe environment and might even be able to receive help for his condition, “The Elephant Man,” as he is known, takes him up on it.

That, said Runnels, is when Dr. Treves begins to wrestle with his motivation for helping Merrick.

“Does he care about him and is doing this for altruistic reasons or is he being selfish and thinking about his own notoriety, especially if he can heal him?” he said. “He starts to realize that Ross (the abusive boss) is reflected in his own choices as well.

“What makes the play most interesting to me is the ethical dilemma going on. Merrick wants nothing more than to be a normal man and do what normal men do.”

Runnels said the dilemma inside Treves is one with which he and others in the arts often struggle, and that is a timeless issue. For that reason, he decided to dust off the play and present it again, this time for a different audience.

“One of the reasons I like the show is because I connect with it so much in my own life,” Runnels said. “Everyone connected to performance or the arts wrestles with the thought of ‘am I doing this for the art or to get attention?’”

He likens it to those who sing specials in church and struggle with the desire to lead in worship yet enjoy the accolades of churchgoers when they do something well. That fine line often gets crossed, he said.

Though it’s more subtle, Runnels said The Elephant Man is also about a spiritual journey by Merrick, who while in the hospital begins constructing a miniature version of St. Philip’s Church, which he calls “a house where God would dwell.” Through this he also asks what Runnels says are “the hard questions about God, like what role does God play in ending human suffering.”

The dramatic play was the 1979 Tony Award winner for Best Play, though Runnels said that does not mean the message is dated for today’s audiences.

For the Ruidoso production, Runnels is bringing back two members of his original cast, including WBU alum Cory Norman in the lead role of Merrick. Norman, who earned his Wayland degree in 2002 then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Texas Tech, is the assistant producer at Theatre Three in Dallas. Also reprising their role in the play is Dr. David Howle, associate professor of religion at Wayland, as Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator, and the conductor.

The lead female role of Mrs. Kendall will be played by Jayli Johnson, a theatre student at Ruidoso High School. Playing multiple roles will be Wayland students and theatre majors Amanda Allen of Merkel, Corinna Browning of Channing, Lesley Gatlin of Graham. Other roles will be filled by additional SMTC participants.

Tickets for the play are $25 through the Spencer Theater. Tickets may be purchased by calling (888) 818-7872 toll free or on the Spencer Web site at www.spencertheater.com.

The Spencer Theater will repeat its annual fundraiser event the evening after the WBU production by hosting Taste of the Spencer on June 19 at 6 p.m. The event will feature tastings of gourmet cuisine, with piano music by Doug Montgomery and an auction of luxury items, including vacations to Italy, Bali, Hawaii and Mexico, a 1959 Chevy Pickup, golf packages, art pieces, a mink coat and an autographed guitar from Toby Keith. Tickets are $50 and information is available through the Spencer Web site.