I am always fascinated and intrigued by plays dealing with the inner workings of the theatre and the turmoil beneath the surface. When I first heard about The Dresser, which will be completing its run January 24 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, I could not wait to see it. Ronald Harwoodís 1980 play (which has had successful runs in London, on Broadway and was adapted into a motion picture) focuses on one manís drive and his devotion to another, even though the response is moot at best.
The Dresser, set in 1942 during World War II, takes place in a theater in the English provinces where King Lear is to be performed. The focus is on Norman (William Hayes), a dresser who assists and cares for the actor-manager, whether it is cleaning costumes or helping with makeup. Sir (Hal Johnstone), the actor-manager of a Shakespearean troupe, has lost his way of sorts. An aged thespian on his last legs, Sir has forgotten more than his lines. He has forgotten his way of life, sinking further into dementia and depression. It doesnít help his cause when his wife (Angie Radosh) resigns herself to the fact that Sir has become unstable and feels it is time that he step down.
While the other troupe members are either indifferent or afraid to say anything positive of Sirís condition, Norman stands behind Sirís passion to go forward. Also devoted to Sir, while not as obsequious as Norman, are Madge (Elizabeth Dimon), the troupeís long-suffering and loyal stage manager, and a player/stagehand named Irene (Sarah Coleman), who has ulterior motives.
Although The Dresser is not autobiograhical, Harwood was a dresser himself at one time, and his experience shows. Each character has a want and a need to be recognized beyond their own assignments. While this is deemed an ensemble play, we see the story through the eyes of the central character of Norman. His devotion to Sir may seem motherly at first, but as soon as the old man spirals downward, Normanís grip on his own reality slips into a devastating climax after a sudden turn of events.
Nanique Gheridianís direction boasts strong performances from the four leads. Hal Johnstone plays Sir like a man on a mission, transforming Sir from a coward who wants to be left alone into a beast who yearns to be on the stage once more. Angie Radosh stands tall in a nice performance as her Ladyship, while Elizabeth Dimon gives Madge the ability to stand up to Sir, although her devotion resonates much deeper than Normanís. Sarah Colemanís portrayal of a young apprentice shows ingenuity, making a minor role pivotal to the plot.
But the night belongs to William Hayes (an actor-manager himself), who runs an emotional gamut as the dresser. Every cringe, swagger, and facial expression speaks volumes as Hayes' portrayal of Norman and his sycophantic ways make us believe his love for Sir is true up until the very end.
The war is only a backdrop, always relevant but never upstaging the production - thanks in part to Bernadette Simonís lighting and Hayesí scenic design (a dressing room with all the comforts an actor needs). Sound design by Gheridian and Chris Bell also help make the war known through the sounds of air raid signals and bombs from time to time.
Thanks to a provocative work, an intimate setting, and an engaging ensemble, The Dresser cleans up really well. It runs through January 24th in West Palm Beach. For more information, call 561-625-6010 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
PALM BEACH DRAMAWORKS - The Dresser
Scenic Design: William Hayes
Cast: William Hayes, Angie Radosh*, Elizabeth Dimon*, Hal Johnstone, Sarah Coleman, Emmett Stegal, Hugh Davies, Dante Marelli, Stan Hubsher, and Emanuel Tepper
*-denotes members of Actor's Equity Association
-- Kevin Johnson