“The Dresser” by Ronald Harwood opens at Star City Playhouse in Vinton on June 8. This play is a tragi-comedy in two acts, portrayed from a unique perspective— a play within a play, and about the theatre.
Sir is an aging actor, seemingly on his last legs, far past his prime; Norman is his dresser (the term is costumer in American theatre) who idolizes him and who enables him to prepare for each performance.
“Same old, same old” is something that can never be said about Star City Playhouse. Theatre owners Marlow and Karon Semones Ferguson choose each production with great consideration, from among their own favorites, hoping that the play will become an audience favorite as well, provoke thought, or at least broaden the scope of their experience. The result each season is a mixture of drama, humor, or a combination of both, in productions just a little out of the ordinary with plays you probably have heard of, from famous playwrights, but which haven’t been done to death.
Karon Ferguson says it has taken her 20 years to convince her husband to produce one of her favorites, “The Dresser,” she suspects, because the storyline involves the off-limits topic of an actor who forgets his lines.
“The Dresser” is set backstage at a theatre in a small town outside London in January 1942 amidst the terrifying World War II German air raids. It also takes place in an era when acting companies toured the countryside in Europe and in America, performing Shakespeare and other classic works— often a different work each night. For “The Dresser” it’s “King Lear” on this particular evening.
The cast of eight includes many faces from the Star City resident company familiar to Vinton audiences– Joe Kavanaugh in the title role of Norman the Dresser, Michael Ridenhour as the lead actor “Sir,” Gene Marrano as “Geoffrey, aka the Fool in King Lear,” Diane Herd as stage manager Madge, Leah St. Claire as Sir’s wife and leading lady “Her Ladyship,” Brandi Dawson as ingénue “Irene,” Marlow Ferguson as “Kent.” All are strong actors that audiences are delighted to see on the cast list as indicative of the production they can expect.
Newcomer Jan Hodnett appears as “Mr. Oxenby.” He is not a newcomer to acting, just to Star City in Vinton. He has performed with numerous local theatre groups, such as Showtimers. He and Kavanaugh sing together in the choir with Logos Theatricus founded by Our Lady of the Nazarene Catholic Church, leading Hodnett to Star City.
Kavanaugh teaches drama at Northside High School and in recent days has “kept three plays” in his head at once— “The Crucible,” performed at the NHS Vikings Theatre, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” with Attic Productions in Fincastle, and “The Dresser.”
The setting itself is more than just a backdrop. The stage is divided into two sections— onstage and a backstage dressing room, with action in both. The cast members move back and forth through a doorway between the two stages and seemingly change in personality as they switch from their roles in the play back to real life.
The stage backdrop is actually a mural of a theatre audience which the Fergusons brought with them from their theatre in Elizabeth, N.J., when they moved to Roanoke. The couple and their dog, Mignon, are portrayed in the painting.
In the play, “Sir” is “in a bad way” as Norman tries to prepare him to go onstage as King Lear. Sir is suffering from what appears to be some type of mental and physical breakdown. He has just checked himself out of a hospital where he was taken after collapsing in the town square, has forgotten his lines, or even which play is being performed, and spends much of his time trembling and sobbing.
When the play opens, it is one hour until curtain time. There is great debate about whether Sir should go on or not in his current condition. All the actors have varying opinions about whether the performance should be cancelled– apparently more concerned about how this affects them than about Sir’s state of mind and health.
Norman coaxes and cajoles as he endeavors to keep Sir focused and to ignore his incoherent ramblings. He convinces him to remember and rehearse lines, apply his make-up, and don his costume, with interruptions for breakdowns. The mood alternates between poignant drama and manic chaos with the special effects of sirens and bombardments in the background.
Norman fortifies himself and Sir with nips of brandy as they struggle to prepare for the 227th performance of King Lear; he continues to insist Sir will be able to perform yet again.
It is obvious that Sir would have no career left without Norman, although he takes him for granted, and Norman would have no purpose without Sir, to whom he has dedicated his life.
In the end, the play does go on. Sir disconcertingly seems to adopt an entirely different personality as he transitions from backstage to onstage, giving a powerful performance of Lear and then collapsing into a mass, or mess, of insecurities each time he returns to the dressing room.
“The Dresser” runs on weekends from June 8 through June 24 with Friday performances at 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
General admission is $12; $8 for seniors and students. Reservations may be made by calling 366-1446.
Star City was just honored with The Roanoker Best of 2018 Silver Award for Best Theatre/Playhouse in the Roanoke Valley.