THE ELEPHANT MAN, Side Project, at the Side Studio. In a mere 90 minutes, Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 drama explores a lot more than one short life. John Merrick’s deformed body belies a noble and artistic soul, and his sheer inability to resemble anyone else highlights the mystery of identity. How much humanity can you claim when your body is turning to stone and the rest of your kind treats you as a freak or the subject of an experiment? In 1884, Dr. Treves found in Merrick a potent metaphor for incurable sadness desperate for illusion. “A mockery of everything we live by,” Merrick is a litmus test for others’ humanity, measured by how much they can see in him rather than project onto him.

Jimmy McDermott’s surefire staging–offered in close, almost claustrophobic quarters–underscores the play’s rich speculations; Jarrett Cooper’s saxophone solos underline its most powerful moments. Jeff Duhigg as Treves needs to focus more on the physician’s moral conflicts, but he strongly evokes the scientist’s Frankenstein-like ambivalence. As the actress who befriends Merrick, Catherina Kusch suggests the extent to which Victorian repression warped minds. Billy Cooper is outwardly Merrick’s opposite, but he contrasts well the man’s pain with all his questing: it’s hard to deliver the dreams as completely as the despair.