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Local students tackle ‘The Elephant Man’

April 2, 2017 GMT

HARLINGEN — It can be said that Joseph Merrick’s twisted form reflected the consequences of hideous attitudes.

After all, his tortured journey through life in 19th century England exposed him to constant abuse. But Merrick, so powerfully portrayed in the play “The Elephant Man,” faced the challenge well. Likewise, he continues to show others how to meet their challenges, and the students at Harlingen High School South have met them well.

“He carried a lot of baggage from his past,” said James Gracia, 16, a member of the Harlingen High School South Drama Department.

James, a junior, plays the role of Merrick in the school’s production of “The Elephant Man.” He and the other members of the cast have honed their performance to a fine skill. So developed is their practice they’ve scored big the past few weeks in the UIL One-Act Play Competition. This weekend they’re off to the Area competition in Zapata.

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James likewise has spent countless hours tapping into the vitality of Joseph Merrick.

“It’s been around two months,” James said. “He’s a very complicated character.”

That practice long and hard has found its way into his portrayal of the character. James made best actor at the Zone and Bi-District competitions. Christian Ingram, 17, took best actor for his portrayal as Dr. Frederick Treves at the District level.

“It’s been a really amazing experience,” said Roland, a senior. Dr. Treves took Merrick in and studied his condition.

“What’s really amazing is that we’re telling a true story,” Christian said.

The truth of their performance is made evident on several levels. One is the London furnishings from the 1800s. Chairs, desks and beds of the period are carefully placed onstage, bringing that past into the present. The passionate dialogue, struggles for air, and angry gestures convey the beauty of raw pain.

This collage of emotions and clashing ideals is different from the usual challenges of local students. Which is exactly what drama instructor Lee Ann Ince intended.

“We try to put something to challenge the students, that sets them apart from other selections out there,” Ince said.

“This year’s one act play contest entry has been challenging and rewarding,” Ince said. “It has been a privilege to watch the cast and crew come together and work as a true ensemble.”

She admired the way James had learned to “morph” his body into the deformed shapes so familiar in performances of “The Elephant Man.”

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“He has to contort his body and maintain that,” Ince said.

This is a feat which required some extended practice, James said.

“His jaw was contorted so you couldn’t hear what he was saying, it was so slurred,” he said.

One message he received from the experience was the reality of difference.

“He worked his whole life at not being so different and he was abused for being different,” James said. “He was in a circus until Dr. Treves took him under his wing.”

Valerie Luevanos, 17, played the role of Mrs. Kendall, an actress who developed a special relationship with Merrick.

“It was really hard for me,” she said with a smile. “I had to get into her character and understand what she was going through.”

Ince appreciated their dedication.

“They are committed to telling this important story,” she said. “I am excited to see how far we will advance.”

twhitehead@valleystar.com