Written by Ronald Harwood
At the Everyman Theatre through March 23
The Dresser opens to the sound of air-raid sirens, which immediately sets the tone of unease and existential dread that permeates the play. It is 1942, somewhere in England, and Norman (played brilliantly by Bruce Randolph Nelson) is nervously ironing a tunic backstage at a theater. He is the titular dresser of a traveling Shakespeare troupe and, just over an hour before the company is to stage King Lear, its leading actor, known only as Sir (Carl Schurr) is in the hospital, where Norman took him after a public breakdown apparently due to exhaustion.
Norman is soon joined by "her Ladyship" (Deborah Hazlett), the company's manager and leading lady, and Sir's wife. She wants to cancel the night's performance, breaking the company's 17-year streak. As Norman is convincing her to hold off, Sir bursts in, a disheveled wreck, having escaped from the hospital. The aging actor embodies the anxiety rippling through the war-torn country. He is alternately determined that the show must go on in the face of fascism and crippled by fear, unable to remember his lines, even though this is to be his 227th performance of Lear.
Norman relentlessly cajoles Sir into preparing for the show. Even as the actor howls and begs desperately for rest, Norman chipperly gives him sips from a silver cup and talks about the full house that is eagerly awaiting his performance. As an audience, we're torn between rooting for the company-which has already been operating at considerably less than full strength, with many of its able-bodied male actors off at war-to pull it together and begging Norman to simply let the miserable thespian, who frequently forgets which of the rotating plays he's performing (at one point he starts to put on dark makeup to play Othello), throw in the towel.
Sir's desperate desire to move on as he descends into madness echoes Lear's, and the parallels between the two plays extend to the themes of enduring suffering and seeking human connections. It is never entirely clear if Norman, who is almost maniacal in his insistence that Sir take the stage, does so for the good of the company and, indeed, the country, or out of selfish desire to maintain the stability of a regulated life.
The show does go on, despite another round of air-raid sirens and bomb blasts. The play-within-a-play is well-staged, with the players performing to an unseen audience imagined at stage left. As the action opens, Sir grips the arms of a chair backstage and steadfastly ignores cues for his first scene. The production is full of humor, including a fair amount of physical humor, and one of the most awkwardly funny moments comes when the other actors stall in ad-libbed Elizabethan English while Norman tries to physically force Sir onstage. After an uncomfortable few minutes, he goes willingly and instinct takes over, allowing him to give the impassioned performance we suspected was still in him.
There is something potentially self-important in a stage production about the importance of stage productions soldiering on in the face of adversity. And while there are speechifying moments where that potential is realized, the script mostly keeps motives realistically muddled. The playwright, Ronald Harwood, drew from his experience as a war-era dresser for Sir Donald Wolfit, and the script has the ring of authenticity, capturing the experience of collective national trauma through the lens of one particular subset of society: a theater company.
While Sir does at times rail against those trying to bring England to its knees, nothing motivates him more than the appeal of the spotlight. He takes advantage of the starry-eyed admiration of assistant Irene (Emily Vere Nicoll) and seems utterly clueless and unappreciative of just how devoted a dresser he has in Norman, who scrubs the actor's dirty underwear and covers endlessly for his indiscretions. In the end, even Norman doesn't turn out to be the selfless supporter he might have seemed.
After the final bows of Lear, Sir steps out for a curtain call, and the actors, who have been playing to stage left, cleverly swivel the action to us, the actual audience. Though he has to be prompted by backstage whispers to remember everything from the troupe's travel plans to tomorrow night's play, the actor vows that they will carry on. And while Sir may be as doomed as Lear himself, the audience leaves secure in the knowledge that the show will always go on.