Everyman Theatre: The Dresser delivers peerless pathos, comedy

Carl Schurr and Bruce Randolph Nelson in Everyman Theatre’s production of The Dresser   (ClintonBPhotography)

It is every actor’s worst nightmare: that moment when you step onto the stage and suddenly can’t remember your character, the first line or even what show you’re appearing in.

Placing one of his principal players – a failing Shakespearean actor about to attempt his 227th performance as King Lear – in such a predicament, is the sub-plot in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, the current production at Everyman Theatre.  But as the title suggests, the real story in this engrossing comedy/drama is the relationship between the failing actor and his homo-neurotic dresser, Norman.

Carl Schurr as Sir and the ensemble of The Dresser
Carl Schurr as Sir and the ensemble of The Dresser.

Directed by Derek Goldman, The Dresser is Harwood’s autobiographical look at his time as the dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit.  The play was roundly praised when it premiered on London’s West End in 1980.  A subsequent Broadway production (1981) and film adaptation (1983) brought even more accolades.

The Dresser is set in war-torn Britain during the Blitz of Nazi aerial bombardments.  As a motley group of Shakespearean actors prepares for yet another performance, panic grips the company, when it becomes evident that the leading actor, known only as Sir, is not up to the task of appearing that night.  Only his longtime dresser, Norman, is certain that his master can rise to the occasion.  In proving his faith in Sir, Norman has to combat Sir’s acid tongued wife (Her Ladyship); a dowdy stage manager (Madge); a cut-rate prima-donna (Mr. Oxenby) and an ingenue with a possible angle (Irene). With a combination of impertinence and imploring; conniving and cajoling, Norman somehow gets Sir into costume and out on the stage for a stellar performance.  But it is a bittersweet triumph, and in the end Norman is left to ponder the toll exacted by seventeen years under the thumb of his vitriolic taskmaster.

Much of the humor in The Dresser comes from the familiar interplay between Sir and Norman.  When Sir is asked if he hates the critics, he replies, “How can you have nothing but compassion for the crippled?”  Sir also notes, “A memory is like a policeman – never there when you need it.”

Bruce Randolph Nelson as the dresser, Norman  and Carl Schurr as Sir
Bruce Randolph Nelson as the dresser, Norman and Carl Schurr as the mercurial Sir.

Norman also gets his digs in, when he wryly notes that he saw four spinsters buying tickets for that evening’s performance.  “They are no strangers to disappointment,” Norman observes.

But the show must go on, in spite of Sir’s failing health, and the aged thespian recalls:

Sir: Did you see me in the Corsican Brothers?
Norman : No, that was before my time.
Sir: You should have seen me.  I went on with double pneumonia.  Apt, when you’re playing twins.

Bringing The Dresser to life, Everyman has mounted what may be its finest production of an already salient season, mixing the spellbinding story with keen creative minds and a truly terrific cast.

Battling his boisterous boss and a Byzantine cadre of characters, Bruce Randolph Nelson is gripping as the multifaceted Norman.  It would be easy enough to play Norman as a smarmy sycophant, but from the moment the curtain rises, Nelson infuses his character with an anguished, beating heart.  This truly is a masterful performance.

Carl Schurr is superb as the teetering tyrant, Sir.  Schurr has the look and the bearing of a Shakespearean actor; somewhat reminiscent of Sir Derek Jacobi.  This is surprising, when one considers that Schurr lists only one Shakespearean part amongst his many and varied theatrical roles.

Carl Shurr as Sir and Deborah Hazlett as Her Ladyship
Carl Schurr as Sir, Deborah Hazlett as Her Ladyship and Bruce Randolph Nelson as Norman.

A dressed down Megan Anderson makes the most of the determined stage manager Madge.  Deborah Hazlett is wonderfully sublime as she brings a jarring bitchiness to Her Ladyship.

Wil Love had some marvelous moments as the completely clueless Geoffrey Thornton.  Ditto James Whalen’s turn as the put-upon Oxenby.

James Bunzli, Will Cooke, Benjamin Lovell and Frank Tesoro Vince fill out an ensemble of Shakespearian actors who are just bad enough to be delightfully endearing.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the cast is Emily Vere Nicoll as the ingenue Irene.  Nicoll never really shows her hand, and the audience is left to wonder if she is merely misunderstood or actually a conniving climber.

On the creative side, scenic designer James Fouchard’s set quickly morphs from Sir’s comfy dressing room into the shadowy backstage of an ancient theater.  These changes are enhanced by Harold F. Burgess II’s artful lighting design.  Chas Marsh’s sound design is nicely cued and never overpowers the action on the stage; a perfect mix of subtle and severe.

Both costume designer Julie Potter and wig & makeup designer Anne Nesmith do a fine job fitting the actors with early Celtic and wartime looks.  Kudos to Gary Logan’s coaching of the difficult to master Shakespearian dialects.

Everyman Theatre’s production of The Dresser is live theater at its best; nearly flawless and as such, is highly recommended.

Everyman Theatre’s production of The Dresser runs from now – March 23.  Running Time: approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes (including one intermission).  The theater is located at 315 W. Fayette St., Baltimore, Maryland.  Tickets and other information may be found by visiting Everyman online.  All photography by ClintonBPhotography.