J.R. Stuart, James Hesselman, & Melissa Combs in The Dresser. Photo courtesy of Stage on Spring.
By Ronald Harwood
Directed by J.R. Stuart
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
Go to The Dresser because the proceeds benefit the less fortunate; go because the ticket price is one of the best deals around; or go because the play is good and well worth taking the time. The Dresser is a play originally produced in 1980. Author Ronald Harwood apparently drew on his personal experience working as a dresser for Sir Donald Wolfit (General Murray in Lawrence of Arabia). Wolfit was an actor-manager of the old school, a truly great talent who ran his barnstorming companies with a tyrannical hand and populated his stages with inferior actors, the better to show off his own renowned skills.
Tom Courtenay played the role of the dresser, Norman, in the first London production, on Broadway, and in a well-received film version in 1984. More recently, no less than Sir Ian McKellen took it on for the BBC in a lusterless production that was not approved by Mr. Harwood. For this production at Stage on Spring, two top-notch local actors do work that might live up to the playwright’s expectations.
Sir (J.R. Stuart) manages a theatre troupe touring the provinces in England during World War II, currently featuring a repertory that includes King Lear, Othello, and Richard III. He is a tragic mess, requiring the constant ministrations of his devoted dresser, Norman, (James Hesselman) to function. Along with Sir’s leading lady and companion, Her Ladyship (Melissa Combs) and Stage Manager Madge, (Georgette Kleier), the three of them keep the star on his feet and entering on cue (most of the time). The aging thespian is senile, emotionally unstable, and given to tantrums, often uncertain of which play he is about to perform.
The action, such as it is, turns on Sir’s shifting affections for Her Ladyship, Madge, the young ingénue, Irene (Marina Hart), and Geoffrey (Cary Wiger), the humble actor playing Lear’s Fool. Oxenby (Mitch Donahue), another actor in the company who is also a budding playwright, only has contempt for his employer. Norman is as fully committed to Sir as anyone, and the character seems to be gay, although asexual is perhaps more accurate. His identity is inextricably tied to propping up a man who is absolutely dependent upon him but also takes him entirely for granted, and love may indeed be at the heart of it, but not desire. Norman is, in his own way, just as lost as Sir, a truth painfully revealed in the play’s devastating climax.
Yet The Dresser is such a simple piece, written with great economy, which allows the heightened emotional life of its characters to fill out the story more than plot. As director/producer/scenic designer, J.R. Stuart mounts a surprisingly rich production given the small stage. Sophie Berman’s costumes, Brad Murphy’s lights, and Kenneth Atkins’ sound design all contribute a fair share to the look of the piece, and the ensemble work consistently realizes the material in something close to full measure, and with pretty good English dialects too. It was particularly nice to see Derby Dinner stalwart Cary Wiger deliver the kind of understated, rueful character work that he is not typically required to do for that company.
Ultimately, so much rides on the actors playing Norman and Sir. James Hesselman treads a fine line in essaying Norman’s eccentric command of his aging charge. The character is comic and written with enough flamboyance to invite overplaying, but Hesselman’s sure and studied judgment carries the day. Mr. Stuart must be having huge fun playing the exaggerated grandiloquence of Sir, indulging himself in so many of the tropes of bad acting, here in service to a character so out-of-balance and lacking a grasp on reality that his tragedy is overlooked for much of the play. It is a performance of great humor and humanity, but one that also charts the mercurial shifts in emotion of madness. The script fairly requires overacting of a kind, but Mr. Stuart releases his hammy actor’s heart to make every plummy syllable and over emphatic gesture an exultant tribute to a life spent in unreserved commitment to theatre.
So the best reason to see The Dresser is simply that it is a good play, given life through as much hard work, intelligence and talent as can be found on any stage in the Louisville area right now.
September 7 – 12 @ 8:00 pm
All proceeds benefit St. Marks United Church of Christ Clothes Closet and Soup Kitchen Missions, feeding and clothing 150+ every Saturday.
General admission tickets are $10 and reservations are recommended. Call/text J.R. Stuart at 502.380.6569. Honor system-simply pay by cash or check when you arrive. Doors open at 7:30 and performances begin at 8:00.
St. Marks Stage on Spring
St. Mark’s UCC
222 East Spring Street
New Albany, IN 47150
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.