BWW Review: GABRIEL: Better Angels Take Flight at Stoneham Theatre
Written by Moira Buffini, Directed by Weylin Symes; Scenic Design, Matthew Lazure; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Jeffrey E. Salzberg; Sound Design, David Reiffel; Production Stage Manager, Rachel Policare
Performances through May 14 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org
Stoneham Theatre seriously ups its game with Moira Buffini's 1997 play Gabriel, a World War II tale of survival and intrigue, where the fate of a family may rest upon the identity of a mysterious stranger. Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes directs a cast that includes some of Boston theater's most stellar actors, as well as a nine-year old member of the young company making her Mainstage debut in a pivotal role. Scenic designer Matthew Lazure's evocative set takes us to the island of Guernsey, to a rustic farmhouse lacking the creature comforts formerly enjoyed by the family before the Nazi occupation.
Jeanne Becquet (Georgia Lyman) is an elegant, attractive widow taking care of her precocious 10-year old daughter Estelle (Marissa Simeqi) and her daughter-in-law Lilian (Josephine Moshiri Elwood) with the help of her housekeeper Lake (Cheryl McMahon). Displaced from their estate on the island by German officers, Becquet and company make do in the drafty, old farmhouse by dealing in the black market and trying not to ruffle the enemy. The new commander, Major Von Pfunz (Thomas Derrah), courts Becquet, and their cat and mouse game builds tension as the storyline develops. Lyman and Derrah squeeze every juicy drop out of the wonderful lines of dialogue that Buffini gives their characters.
With the innocence and bravado of childhood, Estelle believes that her brother Myles, an RAF pilot, or an angel will protect her family, and she dares to haunt the officers living in her former home. When Lilian discovers an unconscious man washed up on the shore, she enlists the child's help to bring him into the house to recover. Lake and Jeanne are not happy about his presence, fearing that the Germans will punish them if he is found there, but Lilian says he looks like her husband Myles and they need to help him. Absent any clothing or identification, they don't know if he is a Brit or a German, but Estelle dubs him Gabriel (Alexander Molina).
After three days, Gabriel gains consciousness, but he has amnesia. He doesn't know who he is and has no awareness of the war, but he remembers falling. His hosts are relieved when he speaks English, but he surprises them when he also speaks flawless German to Von Pfunz. The plot thickens as everyone has their own idea about who Gabriel might be and where he came from. The playwright lays out several possible options, but allows us to make up our own minds. As long as Gabriel remains unknown to himself, how can we be sure who's side he's on?
Buffini craftily weaves the threads of her story to ensnare the audience, creating rich characters who are defined by their situations and vividly brought to life by this topnotch ensemble. The statuesque Lyman brings a tough exterior to Becquet that belies an underlying fear that Von Pfunz will harm her family. Her scenes with Derrah, one of the creepiest Nazis that I've seen onstage, offer a master class as she is conciliatory to his face and repelled when she turns her back to him. Derrah's schizophrenic portrayal ranges from buffoonery to gamesmanship, from explosive anger to apologetic softness, and is a wonder to behold. The always reliable McMahon gives a surly edge to Lake, even as she shows authentic warmth and support to those around her.
As the Jewish outsider married to Becquet's son, Elwood conveys her discomfort and lack of certainty in her position in the household, and realistically portrays a rising hysteria about the danger she faces in the presence of Von Pfunz. She and Molina share sweet chemistry, and his charm and innocence win over Lake and Becquet eventually, as well. Molina's ability to parlay that innocence and the blank slate of his character into strength and valor works to persuade the audience that he just might be who his name implies. Clearly, Estelle believes in him and Simeqi is totally convincing in all aspects of her character. It is an impressive debut for the fourth grader.
In support of Lazure's set, lighting designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg adds to the war-time atmosphere with the use of candles and low levels of light to indicate power outages, sound designer David Reiffel pipes in 1940s music, and Gail Astrid Buckley's costume designs evoke the styles of the period. Kudos to dialect coach Samantha Richert as all of the British accents are understandable and consistently maintained.
According to his note in the program, Symes has had his eye on this play for over five years. It may have greater resonance in the current political climate, but his direction highlights the personal drama and captures the snippets of humor that occasionally lighten the moment. He draws commanding performances from the entire cast in service of Buffini's riveting story. We are compelled to think about the action that each character takes and consider what we might do in the same circumstances. Gabriel encourages us to listen to the voices of our better angels.