Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Ronald Harwood's The Dresser is a Wonderfully Evocative Production
I saw The Dresser in London with Freddie Jones and Tom Courtney in 1980 and the first American production at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York during the fall of 1981 with Tom Courtney repeating the role of the dresser while famed British actor Paul Rogers took over the role of the actor merely named "Sir." Albert Finney played Sir in a smashing film version directed by Peter Yates, and Courtney reprised his role for the film. There is a current production of Harwood's classic play at the Duke of York Theatre in London with Julian Glover playing Sir and Nicholas Lyndhurst playing the dresser.
The Dresser is loosely based on the life of one of England's greatest Shakespearean actors, Sir Donald Wolfit, who had his own touring company that went from province to province before and during the war. (I had seen Sir Donald on stage after the war; he was a magnificent actor who dominated the stage in any of the Bard's plays.) Ronald Harwood was Wolfit's dresser for five years; however, Harwood states the play is not about their relationship. Undoubtedly, this is Ronald Harwood finest literary play and the dialogue is sparking with theatrical wit.
The Dresser is set in January 1942 in a theatre in the English provinces, with the country in the middle of the blitz. The company, headed by Sir (Ken Rowland) and his wife "Her Ladyship" (Stephanie Saunders Ahlberg), is doing Shakespeare rep and tonight will be King Lear. Sir is about burned out, suffering from sheer exhaustion and losing most of his lines. As they say, "he should pack it in," but actors being actors, he still wants that limelight. He is struggling to keep a grip on his sanity to complete his 227th performance of King Lear. His dresser, Norman (Edwin Richards), is a fuss budget who has served the actor faithfully for 16 years. His job is not only to dress the man but to massage his ego, remind him of his opening lines and even provide the sound effects for the storm scene.
Ken Rowland (lead roles in opera, musical theatre and drama for many years in the Bay Area and will be leaving the area with his wife for three years in Wales) as Sir and Edwin Richards (The Foreigner at Ross Valley Players) as Norman give strong performances. Rowland's Sir wonderfully recalls his previous engagements with affection and rapidly dissolves into wrath when he has to go back on stage to play Lear. His up and down moods are amazing. Edwin Richards gives crystal clear delivery on every line with his whiney voice. He is equally engrossing on the stage with his undecided attitude toward his employer, whom he both worships and loathes.
Both actors are supported by a very capable cast spearheaded by Stephanie Saunders Ahlberg as Her Ladyship and Robyn Wiley as Madge the dutiful stage manager who has been secretly in love with the actor for many years. The rest of cast, who play the actors, are Stephen Dietz, Dale Camden, Remi Barron and Mitchell Field; all give competent performances in their small roles. Juliet Heller as the young apprentice who wants to be a star on the stage is very good in her brief role.
Director James Dunn helms a riveting production that amply demonstrates the power this drama still has to mesmerize an audience. Ken Rowland has also designed the set, which is "spot on," just like dressing room in the provinces during the war years. It has incredible detail and the scene change between the dressing room and the back stage of a theatre is absolutely amazing.
The Dresser runs through April 24th at the Ross Valley Players Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, Sir Francis Drake Blvd at Lagunitas, Ross. For tickets call 415-456-9555 or visit www.rossvalleyplayers.org. Their next production is Ivan Menchell's witty and touching comedy The Cemetery Club, running May 13th through June 19th. The 75th season will close with Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barber's musical fantasy Once Upon a Mattress, July 15 through August 21.