It was a 21-st century beginning for some members of the cast Williamstown Theatre Festival's production of "The Elephant Man."
Leading lady Patricia Clarkson explained the process began for her when she received a text message from fellow actor Bradley Cooper.
" 'You. Me.' And I thought, 'Oh!' " Clarkson joked, recalling the text. The message continued, 'Williamstown. Elephant Man.' And that is how Cooper, and director Scott Ellis, invited Clarkson to the cast of the play at WTF's Nikos Stage, where it officially opened Thursday. The show runs through Aug. 5. (Clarkson accepted.) Set in the late 1800s, "The Elephant Man" by playwright Bernard Pomerance is based on the life of Joseph Carey Merrick, whose deformities earned him that moniker and lasting notoriety. He was put on display at Victorian freak shows popular in London at the time and found his way to high society.
Cooper, Clarkson and Ellis shifted between jovial and serious discussion about their work during a 30-minute press conference with area media earlier this month at the Williams Inn.
Pomerance's piece, written in 1979 and twice staged on Broadway, explores the concepts of beauty, innocence, cruelty and human dignity. Cooper said his father showed him the 1980 David Lynch movie based on Pomerance's play.
He attributed the film to one of the reasons he became an actor.
"That character always was sort of imprinted in myself," said Cooper.
That indelible mark inspired Cooper to stage a version of the play for his New York University Actors Studio Drama School MFA thesis. And in 2008, while working at WTF on "The Understudy," Cooper and Ellis discussed their desire to work together on the play in a future season in Williamstown.
Since then, Cooper's success has mounted with films such as "The Hangover," parts one and two, as well as "Limitless" among his credits. He is also currently the "Sexiest Man Alive," according to People Magazine. The audience will be asked to suspend their disbelief around that fact.
In accordance with Pomerance's instructions Ellis will stage the play without the use of theatrical make-up. Instead, the audience is shown photographs of Merrick at the top of the show to establish what he looked like.
A form of fast-growing tumors rendered Merrick's face misshapen and enlarged and caused his right hand and chest to grow gangly and larger than his left.
"My feeling with Merrick, the physical affliction is a massive undertaking and a very interesting thing to do as an actor to just study exactly what physical malady plagued him," Cooper said explaining how he intends to man-ifest Merrick's physical challenges. "The thing that I love most about him is how he very much wanted to belong and be a part of and that is something that I can very much relate to in my life."
The trio agreed the play is also about intimacy and connection.
"I think underneath it is a love story and I think there is a love story between (Merrick, Mrs. Kendall and Dr. Frederick Treeves)," said Ellis. "I think there is a deep love that develops between them and an understanding."
This is Ellis' ninth production at Williamstown with the most recent being the 2008 production of "The Understudy," in which Cooper made his festival debut.
Clarkson, who is taking part in the festival for the fifth time, has been working on films as of late and said this is the longest stretch she has been off-stage in her career.
"It is the elephant in the room in my life, so to speak," she said.
What: "The Elephant Man" by Bernard Pomerance
Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival
When: Tonight through Aug. 5. Eves.: Tue.-Thu. 7:30; Thu.-Sat. 8. Mats.: Thu., Sun. 2; Sat. 3:30
Where: Nikos Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown
How: (413) 597-3400; wtfestival .org; at the ‘62 Center box office