Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see David's review of Smokey Joe's Cafe
Set in the German-occupied island of Guernsey in February 1943, Gabriel is about several women who live together in a tiny island house. They include the sharp-tongued widow and head of the home Jeanne Becquet (Jessica John), her fearless daughter Estelle (Catalina Zelles), her daughter-in law Lily (Lilli Passero), and a concerned and caring housekeeper Lake (Annabella Price). Their lives are interrupted when a young man with amnesia, who becomes known as "Gabriel" (Alan Littlehales), comes to the island. Estelle and Lily quickly begin to care about Gabriel, but Jeanne does not approve, feeling that his presence will cause negative consequences. Making matters more complex are the frequent visits of a German, Von Pfunz (Richard Baird), who becomes infatuated with Jeanne.
Playwright Moira Buffini rushes through the relationships that Gabriel develops with Estelle and Lily at a speed that keeps their connection from being as emotional as it should be for the audience. Given that the play is almost three hours long, it's surprising that this part of the plot doesn't feel very fleshed out. Even though the play is named after the amnesiac stranger, the mystery aspect isn't the most entertaining aspect about the production. While there are some interesting revelations about Gabriel, including the fact that he can speak both English and German, his arc does take a backseat to the main draw of the evening, which are the conversations and relationship between Jeanne and Von Pfunz. They are both strong-willed people who clash in a metaphorical battle of wits, and John and Baird keep theatregoers invested in the action whenever they are onstage together.
John doesn't try to portray Jeanne as a warm and fuzzy leader, but she infuses the character with quick-thinking intelligence that allows her to make drastic decisions to survive during this bleak period in history. Baird brings plenty of charisma to the role of Von Pfunz, an amusing man who could be much more likable if he weren't a Nazi and part of the occupying German force. The actor is funny and sensitive, yet he also conveys a sense of danger when people refuse to cooperate with him. While John and Baird are given the most interesting and captivating material, Zelles, Passero, Price and Littlehales are all excellent in their roles. Credit goes to associate artistic director Christopher Williams for getting such fine performances from the ensemble.
Williams creates an ambience that feels like something out of a fairy tale. From Estelle's use of a chalk circle onstage to the way he directs the more innocent interactions between Gabriel and Lily, Williams stages the play in a world far removed from our own. His crewmembers are able to contrast the more dramatic and lighter situations. From the use of "Nature Boy" in Ryan Ford's audio to Marty Burnett's wood-heavy set, they create a fable-like atmosphere. Other elements from Williams' design team, such as the illusion of a lack of electricity through Matt Novotny's lighting design, and Von Pfunz's Nazi uniform by costume designer Elisa Benzoni, add a dark tone to the story.
Due to the dramatic plot, its setting in a defining part of history, and the powerful performances from John and Baird, Buffini's story is, overall, a solid historical drama. It leaves the audience with a lot of concepts to think about, which is always a sign of a successful production.
Gabriel, through March 24, 2019, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $42.00 and can be purchased online at www.northcoastrep.org or by phone at 858-481-1055.