We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

You’d be forgiven if, upon Scott Fortier’s hunched, newsboy-cap-and-canvas-sack-headed entrance onto the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop stage, you stifled a giggle. John (or possibly Joseph) Merrick, derisively known as the Elephant Man, has become an icon since David Lynch’s 1980 film bio, his bellow “I am not an animal!” as much a catchphrase gag as “No wire hangers!”—and just as removed from its wrenching origins. So it’s a shock when Fortier’s next appearance finds him nearly naked, sitting upright in a chair and looking like a normal nearly naked guy. As Peter Finnegan’s Dr. Treves describes Merrick for an audience of physicians, Fortier undergoes an astonishing transformation, contorting himself into a prosthetic-free but undeniably deformed specimen. Fortier’s performance throughout the Catalyst Theater Company’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s play (not the same script Lynch used, though the story will be familiar) is the stuff of awards. Victim of a little-understood medical condition, possibly Proteus syndrome, Merrick lived in a workhouse and a sideshow before coming to stay at a London hospital, under the care of Treves, from 1886 until his death in 1890. Pomerance’s script—and Jim Petosa’s staging of it—deals mostly with the imaginative, sometimes self-pitying Merrick’s relationship with Treves, portraying the doctor as a well-intentioned but not always prudent man. Like Fortier, Finnegan offers a consistent and sympathetic performance, and the rest of the cast is likewise on point. The same cannot be said for the play itself, which veers from history-pageant staginess (Treves and Jesse Terrill’s hospital director Gomm addressing the audience) to surrealism (a sometimes funny but ill-considered dream sequence in which Merrick dissects Treves) to romance (the affectionate, complex scenes between Merrick and Valerie Leonard’s Mrs. Kendal) to harsh realism (Merrick’s flailing, gagging death). If it doesn’t always hang together, it’s nevertheless well-paced, finely performed, and beautifully staged; mention also must be made of Alexander Cooper’s stark set, which surrounds the characters with fun-house mirrors, and Jin-Young (Janice) Shin’s oboe interludes, composed by Terrill. Petosa passes on a lot of chances for Big Themes here—for example, downplaying the scene in which Merrick, completing a cathedral model, echoes the Gospels in saying “It is done.” And it’s a relief that he does so, because the strength of this story is in its characters. Ultimately, this tale doesn’t need agonized declarations to prove that Merrick and his cohorts are utterly human.—Pamela Murray Winters