Few things provide as comfortable a theatrical experience as well-acted period dramas that are as interesting as they are intricate. If done well, one forgets he is in a crowded theater watching a play, and not at home devouring a great old mystery by the fire with a hot cup of PG Tips. Stage West Theatre evokes that engrossing mood in their many-layered and edgy production of Moira Buffini’s Gabriel.
Buffini’s puzzle play takes place on the German-occupied Channel Islands (specifically Guernsey) in 1943. Widowed Jeanne Becquet (Dana Schultes) is the family matriarch trying to keep her family together in the face of losing their home to the occupiers, and having to do what it takes to ingratiate themselves with the Germans — selling contraband food, having an affair with the former commander. Her young daughter, Estelle (Hayley Lenamon) channels her mother’s bitterness by playing pranks on the invaders. Becquet’s daughter-in-law, Lily (Tabitha Ray) complicates matters by finding a mysterious young man washed up on the beach bereft of his clothes and memory.
The new Nazi in charge, Von Pfunz (Michael Corolla) starts sniffing around (when he is not chasing Becquet’s skirts), about the identity of the watery amnesiac whom the family has named Gabriel (Garret Storms). It is a house of many secrets, and the play builds tension in delicious fashion leading up to an incredible, and quite unexpected, conclusion.
Stage West’s polymath, Jim Covault, directs a well-honed cast, and adds nuance to a play that is already rife with them. For all of this heavy lifting to work though, one needs the right actors to pull it off. Lenamon’s plucky trickster is youthful and fresh. Ray conveys a lovely and subtle vulnerability with her portrayal of Lily. Kelly Pino provides a stalwart presence as the housekeeper, Lake. Storms is ethereal and profound in all the right places as the fallen Gabriel (more levels of meaning there too), and a suitable romantic counterpoint in the feminine-dominated household.
Corolla’s “clockwork monkey major” is not merely an evil man in a gray uniform. He imbues the character with appropriate and disturbing poetic complexity. Schultes’ performance is simply stellar as the steely Jeanne. She is charming, blunt and cruel as befits one under such tremendous pressures. All the actors deserve a special note of recognition for their impeccable accents be they German, British, or Cockney.
The play explores the nature of recollection, personal truth, identity, evil, and poetry, as well as the lengths that people will go to in the face of a dehumanizing war. These are heady themes to be sure, and ones that the show weaves in seamlessly to a dense, yet satisfying plot. Comfort food for the theatrical appetite prepared with care, what more could one ask for?