STAGE REVIEW : The Heart Beats With Purpose at 'Return of Herbert Bracewell'

Old actors are more than the sum of their parts. That is why Herbert Bracewell, an aging veteran of late 19th-Century touring companies, feels he deserves a comeback in the form of a one-man show, even if he was one of the many actors who never got to play the lead and did his job well without ever branding his name into the American memory.

"The Return of Herbert Bracewell or Why Am I Always Alone When I'm With You?" is, like "The Cocktail Hour," one of those surreal plays in which the actor lives out what he says he will do even as he's doing it.

The tribute Bracewell plans is the play we see unfolding. When his wife, a former star, wanders into the attic while he's rehearsing and tells him he needs her in his play, her very appearance suggests that she has won the battle to be a part of his show.

More important than the cleverness of the script, however, is the greatness of heart that beats within the proceedings at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre. The play, as Andrew Johns wrote it, is nothing less than a love letter to the forgotten actors of yesteryear who toiled at the craft they loved, crisscrossing the country and bringing culture to the pre-radio and television masses.

Jean Hauser's direction tenderly elicits the love between the lines, while keeping sharp the barbs that fend off the sentimentality professionals like Bracewell and his wife would loathe. These are people, after all, who describe "real-life emotions" as being "such a drain."

Syd Lindstedt's vinegary performance as Bracewell's wife, Florence, is wonderfully bracing. It's hard to get mushy over a woman who complains that there are "too many lumps of coal masquerading as diamonds" and, although denying that she has "a vicious mouth," she's not at all embarrassed to admit, "I say vicious things."

Her Florence is a many-layered character, as vulnerable on the inside as she is prickly on the outside. One can see why Herbert still loves her, despite the 17 months when she left him for an Irish actor whom she deluded herself was Italian (she had a thing for Italians). As played by Walt Beaver, Herbert seems at times to see right through her without saying a word. His part poses the unusual challenge of kindling interest in an actor that spent an entire career being uncharismatic.

He rises to that challenge slowly, but surely, by building a case for Bracewell's depth of character that proves irresistible in its very decency.

The attic set, by Robert Earl, tells a poignant story of its own, awash with old scripts, playbills and theatrical bric-a-brac: a suit of armor, a Victrola, candle-lit footlights and a Cyrano de Bergerac nose (custom made in case Bracewell ever got to play the part, which he didn't).

Matthew Cubitto's soft lighting enhances the feeling of nostalgic romance as do Dianne Holly's costumes, which set off Florence in a fitting frippery of lavender lace.

It may seem curious that, as we approach the closing of this century, we should wax nostalgic for the closing of the last. But the special charm of "The Return of Herbert Bracewell" lies in the flowering of the regional theater movement that makes the life of a traveling actor a contemporary tale again.

And if that were not enough, "The Return" is also the story of an Everyman who means more to the people who love him than he might realize. It's a wonderful life, Herbert Bracewell. And one that is a privilege to share, if even for just an evening.

"THE RETURN OF HERBERT BRACEWELL or WHY AM I ALWAYS ALONE WHEN I'M WITH YOU?"

By Andrew Johns. Director, Jean Hauser. Costumes, Dianne Holly. Set, Robert Earl. Lighting, Matthew Cubitto. Sound, Lawrence Czoka. Stage manager, Claudea Jardot. With Walt Beaver and Syd Lindstedt. At 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through Sept. 30. At 547 Fourth Ave., San Diego.

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