Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play, The Dresser, is the inaugural production in Little Lake Theatre’s 70th anniversary season, and it’s the first time the theatre has staged this play. It’s ultimately a poignant production. The play traces the intricacies of the relationship between Shakespearean stage actor, Sir (Mark Stevenson), and his dresser, Norman (Art DeConciliis). The relationship between the two men is intensely intimate as Norman helps dress Sir and prepare him for his near-nightly stage performances. Director James Critchfield is careful to never portray this as a relationship of equals; there’s a clear hierarchy. Norman washes Sir’s sweat-soaked undies and fusses over the intricacies of Sir’s life. He laps up the scraps of his employer’s self-interested attentions, which vacillate from verbal outbreaks to doting affection, each place on the spectrum failing to recognize Norman as an individual. Norman is a failed actor, so Sir is his proxy to theatrical success. If Sir succeeds, he succeeds, which makes Norman willing to tolerate a certain level of abuse to live in his shadow.
The play instantly establishes its World War II British setting. It opens in pitch darkness with the disconcerting sound of an air raid warning. While Britain is being rocked on a macro level, this dramatic opening also doubles as a warning for the aging Sir’s own imbalance and decline, which Norman almost immediately narrates to actress Her Ladyship (Joyce Miller). Norman happens upon Sir progressively undressing in public and shuttles him off to the hospital for evaluation. Her Ladyship is a faded beauty queen, still playing King Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, even though she’s more grandmotherly than on the brink of being a bride. Miller is adequate in the role, struggling a bit to find the right cadence for Her Ladyship. Both DeConciliis and Miller, unfortunately, fail to maintain a British accent. Despite the British setting, Critchfield would have been wise to not pursue the accent. Stevenson’s Sir executes flawlessly as a Brit, but the variable accent quality and consistency makes it more of a distraction than an enhancement to the overall production.
Critchfield does a great job of pacing the first act in particular, which anticipates the raising of the curtain on King Lear. The anxiety is palpable regarding first, whether or not Sir will return and then, whether or not he’ll be ready to go onstage for his 227th performance as Lear given he’s still doddering. You find yourself rooting for him and for the show to go on, even as there’s a broader recognition that may not be the wisest choice.
Aside from DeConciliis’ struggle with the British accent, he is well cast as Norman. As the lesser dresser, he is appropriately nondescript, yet he clearly takes pride in his tidy appearance. Costume designer Lauren Gardonis manifests Norman’s type A tendencies with a well-starched blue buttondown shirt and paisley tie topped with a taupe sweater vest, and the whole ensemble is covered with an apron for most of the performance. The apron’s deep pockets provide a convenient stashing place for Norman’s flask that he tipples from throughout the play. As the play progresses, it’s clear he has a drinking problem. He furtively tries to hide his sequence of sips from the flask. Like most drinkers, he thinks he is getting away with it until Sir boldly calls him out. However, it’s not an olive branch to offer help but a berating at Norman’s booze-laden breath. It’s ultimately one more instance of Sir typifying the self-involved artist who can only perceive the world through the lens of how things impact him. DeConciliis has Norman’s face fall, and you can read him masking his hurt for the thousandth time in the nipping cadence of their 16-year relationship.
Ultimately, Norman is fiercely protective of Sir not only because he headily drafts off of Sir’s success but because he is in love with him. DeConciliis struggles with making Norman’s homosexual identity fully authentic, and that believability is necessary given it motivates his character’s ongoing tolerance of Sir. It’s unrequited love, and doubly so as Sir exhibits a dismal dose of homophobia with references to pansies and nancy boys. While perhaps era-appropriate, it makes the play dated, especially considering it takes place in the more progressive theatre space. Sir considers himself a playboy, and that uncomfortably plays out with a young actress named Irene (Elizabeth Glyptis) who brings him his crown to play Lear. Glyptis captures a youthful spark that lures him by stoking his ego, resulting in some cringe-worthy #metoo behaviors from the aged Sir. He asks her to raise her skirt so he can evaluate her legs before lifting her in the air, revealing his darker side while also tweaking his back. Stevenson is nearly flawless as Sir, easily transitioning from primadonna performer to needy child to creepy predator. The flirtation infuriates Norman who reams the young Irene, but his ire is fueled by the fact she can elicit that which he wants for himself. It’s a play where everyone is looking left and right at what they want and can’t have, and Little Lake does The Dresser justice.
Little Lake Theatre’s production of The Dresser continues through May 5th. Check out Little Lake’s newly relaunched website where you can also purchase tickets online.
Photos by James Orr
Categories: Archived Reviews