Devotion in the Midst of a Breakdown

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Nancy Murray reviews Everyman Theatre’s The Dresser

Everyman Theater is now showing The Dresser by Ronald Harwood. The play is about a mid-rate, self-aggrandizing, Shakespearean actor who, due to his advanced age and exhaustion, finds himself in the midst of a mental, emotional and physical breakdown. It is also about devotion. For more than twenty years, Sir, played by Carl Schurr, has been lovingly supported by his dresser, Norman, played by Bruce Randolph Nelson. While one man devoted his life to the theater, the other devoted his life to him. The setting for this drama, which was written in two acts, is the backstage dressing room of a theater in the English provinces during World War II. The play was originally produced and received with much acclaim in 1981. It was made into a movie in 1983, which was nominated for five academy awards. Regardless of time period, The Dresser explores themes which are timeless and universal.

A dresser’s job is to help a performer transition from scene to scene in whatever way they can. They wait in the shadowy wings of the theater with costume changes; they provide water and tea and read lines to support their actors. The dresser in Harwood’s play has done all of this and more. He has become Sir’s right hand man, his confidant and his champion. At the play’s opening, it is clear that the dresser is about to help Sir with the most difficult transition of his life – the transition from vitality to incompetence; from vigor to frailty.

12835900135_036ec2b527_bCarl Schurr as Sir and Deborah Hazlett as Her Ladyship. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

The play opens with Norman, the dresser, nervously recounting the details of Sir’s breakdown to Her Ladyship, the theaters grand dame and Sir’s wife, played by Deborah Hazlett. Norman had no choice but to bring Sir to hospital where it is feared that he will remain for quite some time. When Sir finally makes his entrance he is clearly disheveled and agitated. He describes his recent break-out from the hospital and then collapses into tears. He mumbles and rages incoherently.

Clear signs of dementia are apparent, but the doctors believe, and Norman agrees, that it is exhaustion, and with rest, the right encouragement and enthusiasm, he will be fine. With a true show-must-go-on attitude, the concerned cast agrees to let Sir, despite his condition, perform one of the most difficult and emotionally draining roles in theater, that of King Lear. The parallel between the actor and the man are undeniable. Both have been pushed to their limits and are losing their capacity for reason. Both are questioning the meaning of their lives.

As the play goes on we see how much of himself Norman has given into the support of Sir. We see him fiercely protect Sir from the cloying of others. We see him soothe Sir when the fever of anxiety starts to burn. We see Norman comforting himself with alcohol to make the stress of it all a bit easier to endure and then, we understand why. Norman is secretly in love with Sir and doesn’t mind being invisible, so long as he is able to remain in the light of Sir’s indomitable theatrical persona. Norman draws his own self-worth from being at Sir’s side as his special companion and friend. It is a painful for him to know that his feelings will never be requited but it is devastating to realize, as he does in the end, that his efforts do not warrant a mention in the credits of Sir’s life story.

12835915825_c4c1ce1f7a_bCarl Schurr as Sir and Bruce Randolph Nelson as Norman. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

This production at Everyman is visually arresting. The scenic design by James Fouchard evokes the true feeling of a backstage dressing room and, when the curtain opens and the play begins, the lighting design by Harold F. Burgess II creates the sensation that every performer knows and loves– the darkness behind the bright lights where the audience waits. Sound design was flawlessly executed by Chas Marsh and kept us believing we were witnessing the back stage experience of a grand theater. When the air raids blasted and the bombs began to fall around the theater, it was frighteningly true to life.

While much of the stage direction by Derek Goldman was somewhat static, there were moments where it was inspired. The scene when the audience was allowed to witness the creation of a theater storm was especially enthralling because it both informed the audience of how theater works behind the scenes and swept the audience up in the excitement of it.

Thanks to terrific wig and make-up designed by Anne Smith and costume designs by Julie Potter, theatergoers will be captivated by the on-stage transformation of a bumbling old man into a king.

There are many things to love about this production, but it fell short when it reached for the emotional intensity needed to really connect with the audience. It is sometimes difficult to decipher if the actors’ delivery is the result of their own choices or of those of the director. I found myself, more than once, wishing the choices had been made differently. Nelson, at first, plays to the caricature of the theater queen and the affectations of an overplayed stereotype detracted from his comedic timing, which is exemplary. Nelson delivered the strongest performance of the night, even though all of the actors were consistent and had presence that made them easy to watch. Much of the play was funny and pleasurable to experience.

12836312994_80991dc87f_bCarl Schurr as Sir. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

What was missing were the softer, sweeter moments; the subtleties that happen when performers understand and embrace the peaks and valleys of their character’s experience and fully embody the complex emotions those experiences give rise to. For the most part, the performances stayed safely on the surface and, with few exceptions, relied on the script to convey the emotional impact of the story. When Sir transitioned from frantic and angry into sad and afraid, there was not enough modulation in his tone or attitude to let the audience glimpse the man that he was before falling ill. When he and Norman had moments of lucid appreciation, there was no wistful pause or commiserate silence between them to make us warm to a time when their friendship might have been healthier.

Some moments, some lines, are so important that an actor should almost be still with them, so that the audience can see and feel the anguish in them. Norman’s question, “What about me?” is one of those lines, but his delivery came with excessive gestures and volume. As a result of these choices, the essential moments that might have compelled the audience to weep for these sad men are never wholly realized. The scenes were good but might have been great.

For anyone who wants to experience a solid night of theater or to witness the true stagecraft from the other side of the curtain, Everyman Theatre’s The Dresser is a solid choice.

* Author Nancy Murray is a writer, theater director, and arts critic.

** Featured Image: Carl Schurr as Sir and Bruce Randolph Nelson as Norman. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

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