WHEN VETERAN actor Phil O'Hern shuffled onstage last Saturday night as Sir, the ailing and demented actor of Ronald Harwood's masterfully written 1980 play The Dresser, I was impressed.
He truly embodied the role, his expressive face a mixture of dementia and determination. Act One, the scene an amply furnished 1940s dressing room bathed in warm amber tones: "I'm surrounded by vipers! They're draining the lifeblood out of me!" O'Hern sniffs to his servant Norman, the dresser of the play's title. "I want a tranquil senility." His voice is at once powerful and haggard as he assays his ability to get through the evening's performance of King Lear; and when he has occasion to shuffle to the edge of the stage, he sways almost imperceptibly, his glassy blue eyes staring vacantly above our heads. He's in his element.
Equally impressive is Norman, the fussy, nattering, nervous and devoted servant, robustly played with flamboyant outbursts and wringing hands by Jeremy Thompson. In the play, it is Norman's efficacious mothering and prodigious memory for Shakespeare that ensures the show will go on, no matter how precariously or unpredictably.
The unsuspecting audience didn't know the half of it.
"I understand Phil was on some kind of cold medicine on Saturday night," director James Mitchell Gooden joked candidly on the phone afterwards. "He was great on Friday, but by Saturday he was much sicker." So he really was fighting his way through the evening's performance, adding a wholly apropos element of realism to Harwood's play about the behind-scenes drama of a scrappy Shakespearean troupe traveling the English provinces during the war.
While the play in particular pays homage to the actor-manager -- rare gluttons for professional punishment who played a pivotal role in the history and preservation of English theatre -- its portrait of the small theatre company is likewise timeless in its comedy, if not entirely in its tragedy.
The dressing room banter between Sir and Norman comprises the majority of the play's dialogue, effortlessly bringing disparate elements of history, personal experience and imagination into one eloquent and coherent narrative. It's a rare story, well told.
Though written when Harwood was in his 40s, much of the research and inspiration for this play came 20 years earlier, when Harwood himself served as dresser for the Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit. In the foreword to his published play, Harwood is emphatic that The Dresser is not about their relationship, though it borrows heavily from memory and anecdotes from the South African playwright's long history in English theatre. Each character is an amalgam, an homage to many real-life characters encountered in his studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, during his five years with Wolfit, and later at the Lyceum. The play also quotes indirectly from the autobiography of Sir John Martin-Harvey, the works of James Agate, the biography of Sir Henry Irving, and The Theatre Since 1900, by J.C. Trewin.
As recently as 1995, Harwood introduced his second collection of plays by writing, "In every way I feel myself to be outside the mainstream of contemporary theatre." Nonetheless, one can not laugh at the mishaps in The Dresser without also feeling a warm empathy for today's small theatre troupes. For every mishap the fictional players endure, there is a timely parallel: the difficulty of finding (and keeping) actors more gainfully employed (in this case, by the war); the financial realities that confer dual roles on company members ("Don't, I beg you, let your business manager double as the Fool in King Lear!" Norman scolds in Act One); and the unending burden of laboring so intensely for a small, and even dwindling, audience. "There's a queue of people outside," Norman says, "if four old spinsters counts as a queue."
And, always, there is the threat of cancellation: "Who really cares if he acts or not?" the leading lady says when it appears the show will not go on.
Norman's saucy rejoinder could well be the motto for any local theatre company: "There's bound to be someone!"
In addition to lively performances by O'Hern and Thompson, company actress Linda Andresano provides a welcome balance of British reserve with an unhurried performance as Her Ladyship. She's delight to watch both in timing and mannerism, and though the cast's British accents are believable enough throughout, Andresano's alone sounds effortless.
Likewise, LTW has spared no attention to detail in its staging. The intimate dressing room is admirably attired in vintage props, and the air is punctuated by the bleating of air-raid sirens, the crackle of BBC war news, and the lilting voice of Vera Lynn singing "When They Sound the Last All Clear."
In Act Two, the stage becomes the backstage of the performance of Lear. Elaborate costumes (designed by Thompson, in another of those dual roles) join a collection of low-tech props comically deployed to create the required tempest: a lonely timpani drum; a suspended drawer of marbles; a crackling sheet of paper or metal lowered from the ceiling; the crank of a wind machine. This is where Gooden and company's creative license pays off well, fine-tuning the script to make good use of the open stage. The actors speak their lines off stage, unseen, while we participate in the real drama "backstage." Several such juxtapositions use LTW's small space to clear and creative effect, achieving the greatest effect with the simplest of resources.
As Gooden's actors become Harwood's frantic players, giving their all to create one last bit of magic, again the present finds its voice in the past. For if Shakespeare in the provinces in 1942 teeters on the verge of becoming an antiquated if educational entertainment, the same could be argued, lamentably, of the whole of theatre today as it competes with a much more accessible and immediate celluloid and computer-generated pop-culture.
In fact, The Dresser owes much of its wider audience to the 1983 film adaptation, starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay (the latter the original Norman in both Manchester and London). Asked if the cast looked to the movie for cues, Gooden answered in the negative. "We looked for inspiration for adapting it to the open stage, but we let go of it pretty quickly after that. Harwood changes some of the characters in the screenplay, and the play is actually much funnier than the movie.
"Although," he adds, "any time you watch Albert Finney it's inspirational. He's great."
Better than Phil O'Hern live, on cold medicine? Well, probably. But if you can't have Albert Finney, you might as well enjoy an evening at LTW.
The Dresser, written by Ronald Harwood and produced by Live Theatre Workshop, continues through December 12 at the company playhouse, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $11, with a $1 discount for students and seniors. For reservations and information, call 327-4242.