WENATCHEE — In a hot, dank, concrete basement room off Orondo Street, a group of actors rehearse for their latest performance.
Matthew Pippin twists his face into a scowl and limps, putting his weight onto a walking stick, as he attempts to portray the lead character in “The Elephant Man.” It’s a play about what it means to be human, director Matthew Cadman said.
The play is based upon the true-life story of John Merrick, a man born with a deformity, who was forced to work in a freak show and was ostracized for his physical appearance.
“The themes are just so heavy and so important in my personal life and where we are as a society now,” Cadman said. “It is about tolerance. It is about human dignity. It is about the great theme of redemption.”
The Mission Creek Players production is set to run Sept. 12-14 at the Numerica Performing Arts Center. The theater group chose “The Elephant Man” as part of a shift in philosophy to take on more serious subject matters.
“They changed their approach about four years ago to go with more serious literary plays versus more slapstick or vaudeville or a looser approach,” Cadman said. “This is the fourth iteration of their new philosophy.”
Previous productions included “August Osage County” (2016), “Glengarry Glen Ross” (2017) and “Dancing at Lughnasa (2018).
On Aug. 22, the theater group practiced in their basement space. A fake skeleton hung from a pipe on the ceiling and a stack of serious-looking books were placed on a wooden desk nearby.
The theater group doesn’t have a formal space and so it uses any place it can find, Cadman said.
The play itself uses a simplistic setup, with only a few sets. Projected screens, framed like portraits, feature scenes of London and of the real John Merrick.
The simplicity of the sets helps focus the audience on the actors, Cadman said. It is up to them to carry the message and express what is happening.
“But in the play, what is so cool about it is they’ve stripped it all back and all you see is a man who is acting as if he is deformed and crippled,” Cadman said. “But he has no prosthetics at all throughout the whole play. It is all just imagining how hideous he must have looked.”
In the first scene, a surgeon explains Merrick’s deformities, he said. The actor is just standing there, but as the deformities are described he begins to mimic them, twisting his body. He then continues to act that way throughout the rest of the play.
A play like this is important right now, Cadman said. The country is experiencing a lot of division and tension. People are quick to judge and express anger when their personal beliefs are challenged.
In a similar way, the Elephant Man character is judged in the beginning of the play, he said. But as the performance continues, the actors and the audience begin to see his humanity, his wit and his sharp intelligence — the man behind the face.
“This play is really, really timely in terms of that message — what happens when we don’t listen to each other, what happens when we don’t value each other and, conversely, what is the result of us looking beyond politics, or beyond economics, or beyond skin color,” Cadman said.