THE ELEPHANT MAN, Merattic Theatre Company, at Chicago Dramatists Workshop. In only 80 minutes playwright Bernard Pomerance turns a penny-dreadful plot–the short, cruel, crowded life of John Merrick, a severely disfigured “elephant man”–into an exploration of our humanity. The ultimate outsider, Merrick is a mirror reflecting the worth of those who see his value. Where Dr. Frederick Treves, Merrick’s overprotective guardian, views him as a medical mystery, the actress Mrs. Kendall, adept at illusion, knows that Merrick’s hideous face is just that–a mask for an outcast hiding dreams as big as his scale model of Saint Paul’s church. In him Beauty and the Beast meet.

Matthew Dion’s revival honors Pomerance’s eloquent and impassioned script. Merattic’s production values need work–props like the poster for the Elephant Man and the Saint Paul’s replica look like the work of an autistic child, and the production badly needs a sound design–but the accents, emotions, and ideas are clean if not powerful.

Darin Toonder’s persuasive Treves is every inch a Victorian of upright rectitude, but the character could unstiffen more as Merrick claims his humanity. Almost self-effacingly saintly as Merrick, John R. Pierson brings out the man’s dignity and sardonic humor but could work harder to suggest his pathos and pain: there’s more to the Elephant Man’s suffering than a scoliotic posture and hobbled gait. Donna L. Simon as Mrs. Kendall splendidly reflects Merrick’s unfolding trust.

–Lawrence Bommer