by Michele Markarian
‘Gabriel’ – Written by Moira Buffini. Directed by Weylin Symes. Presented by Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, through May 14.
It’s a rare piece of writing that immerses you in its world so intensely that to leave it is almost a shock to the system. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend series is this kind of writing. Throw in a five-star cast with superlative direction, lights, sound and set, and you have Stoneham Theatre’s masterful production of “Gabriel”.
“Gabriel” takes place during World War II, when the Channel Islands, one of which was Guernsey, were occupied by German forces. Jeanne Becquet (Georgia Lyman) is a widow with a ten year old daughter, Estelle (Marissa Simeqi) and a son who’s missing in combat. She’s also protecting her son’s Jewish wife, Lily (Josephine Moshiri Elwood), housing her under a false identity. To make do, she’s selling goods on the Black Market and sleeping with a handsome German officer, who has been replaced by someone much less appealing, Major Von Pfunz (Thomas Derrah). When Lily finds a naked man (Alexander Molina) unconscious on the beach, she and Estelle bring him home to nurse him back to health, only to discover that he has amnesia. Is the man, who speaks fluent German, a Nazi? A fallen British soldier? The identity of the man is critical to the family’s survival, particularly after Von Pfunz has learned of Lily’s true identity.
“I have no idea where this is going,” I said to my friend during intermission, who told me that she didn’t either. What a terrific piece of storytelling, to take the audience on such a thrilling, unknown journey where the stakes are so high and the characters, despite their flaws, sympathetic.
Jeanne is a character of Scarlet O’Hara’s ilk; she can and will survive anything. The magnetic Georgia Lyman plays her with a steely kind of bitterness and charm. Her natural adeptness with language and ability to parry, particularly with the Major, makes her fascinating not just to watch but to listen to. Thomas Derrah, as the Nazi Von Pfunz, is a marvel, sneaking smugly into doorways to eavesdrop, persisting in showing up where he’s not wanted, and concealing a confession of his own. Only an actor as nuanced as Derrah can play such a despicable character with shades of pathos and sympathy. When at last he reveals his deepest desire, I kid you not, tears involuntarily sprang to my eyes. Von Pfunz, despite clearly being on the wrong side of humanity, is pitiable. Marissa Simeqi, a fourth grader, more than holds her own among such a formidable, experienced cast. This child is thoroughly believable, sometimes creepily so, for Estelle has faith in supernatural forces and does her best to conjure them, much to the dismay of her mother and the housekeeper, Lake (the excellent Cheryl McMahon).
Dialect coach Samantha Richert has done an excellent job, as has the cast, with the accents, which are authentic and consistent. Matthew Lazure’s set realistically depicts the family’s cramped, country living quarters (their finer home, in full view of the lesser one, is occupied by German soldiers). The action takes place on several levels; there is an upstairs bedroom where the family convenes over Gabriel, the name Estelle has given the unknown man. The play takes place on several levels as well, as the characters lie to each other and often to themselves, as a way to keep reality at bay. David Reiffel’s sound design is subtly portentous. As Von Pfunz says, “There’s no more justice. Only force”. Force for good, or force for evil? I urge you to immerse yourself in this show and discover for yourself. For more info, go to: https://www.stonehamtheatre.org/gabriel.html