For Norman, the dresser, the world is best when things are made "lovely." For Sir, the stentorian actor/manager Norman dresses, the lines he utters as King Lear "will be a shield against your barbarity!" He's addressing the Luftwaffe, dropping bombs near his English provincial theater. The small pleasure and the huge gesture form the rich counterpoint at the heart of the theatrical score of Ronald Harwood's supremely satisfying "The Dresser," at the Grove Theatre Company's Gem Theatre.

Satisfaction, in this instance, does not come from the meeting of simple audience demands. Rather, "The Dresser" demands the full extent of an audience's humanity--exactly the humanity with which the play was written. But Thomas F. Bradac's fully conceived and virtually flawless production seemed to elicit only the most modest applause from the crowd I saw it with. Something had passed them by.

Was it the play's overt Englishness, its long dialogues, its adoration for Shakespearean culture and the tough, insular life of the theater? The Grove Theatre's past survey of the classics and especially Shakespeare would have been, one might assume, ideal preparation. But it's been a past of mediocrity, and nothing could have prepared one for the sterling artistry of Bradac's cast, led by Bud Leslie's Norman and Daniel Bryan Cartmell's Sir. That Leslie and Cartmell hold their own with Tom Courtenay and Paul Rogers in the London "Dresser" of 1980 makes these performances worth driving much farther than Orange County to see. This is the kind of work that can give a theater company a reputation. Maybe the patrons were in a state of shock.

Norman's goading of Sir to get on with tonight's performance of "Lear" takes up the play's first half. Sir pushing himself (and being pushed) on stage to do it, and wondering off stage if it's worth doing anymore, fills the second half. Harwood's work revolves around the theme of the dignity of work: Norman's getting the cape pressed right strikes us in this play as of equal worth to Sir's pulling off The Speech on the heath. And because the drama hinges on the subtle dynamics of two friends--even though one serves the other along clear class lines--"The Dresser" becomes a moving look at theater-making as community. Norman is the special community watchdog, going as far as to put Kelli Evans' Irene in her place for disturbing and (he mistakenly and pathetically thinks) seducing Sir.

Sir is wont to remind his actors to "serve the playwright," which gives the artists parity with the servant Norman. Just as the actors expect (or pray for) applause, Harwood explores the same psychology at work in Norman--he hungers for simple acknowledgement of his loyalty. And always, the play is gently reflecting off of "Lear," mindful that theater is as vulnerable as the naked Edgar to modernity's ravages. Six years later, "The Dresser" is looking like a play that will last.

Certainly, this is a staging that will last in the mind. Leslie sculpts a meticulously thought-out figure, finding an intense loneliness within Norman's powerful maternalism. Cartmell belies his relative youth, losing himself in the old, breaking body of Sir as he heroically dips into his last ounce of strength. Superbly supportive (in more ways than one) are Kay Berlet's Ladyship, Susan Adams' cold Madge and Don Barrett's dryly funny Geoffrey. The charged atmosphere is created by Gil Morales' set--half green room, half stage; David C. Palmer's evocative lights, Karen J. Weller's provincial-looking costumes and Wendy Breuder's air-raid-filled sound design.

Performances at 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays (March 23), 3 p.m. and (March 9 and 16) 7:30 p.m. Ends March 29. (714) 636-7213.

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