Theatergoers tired of plays with overly introspective characters and navel-gazing actor monologues, take heart: Stage West’s production of Moira Buffini’s WWII drama Gabriel, which opens this weekend, is full of women of action. Buffini’s women must make complicated choices about romance and family while they are trapped by German occupiers on a tiny British island near the coast of France in 1943. Indeed, the very decisive behavior of the characters is one of the things that made the piece such a challenge, said director Jim Covault.
“Buffini writes about complex and interesting people who aren’t the usual suspects,” he explained. “They fall into a situation and deal with it with the tools they have in hand at the moment. There is a psychology behind the characters, but not too much psychological angst. And there’s not a lot of detail about their histories. The actors had to stop and think, ‘This character has done an unexpected thing. What can I put behind it to make it believable?’ ”
Gabriel follows a household of women –– a mother, a 10-year-old daughter, an adult daughter-in-law, and a housekeeper –– who must find creative and effective ways to deal with two male interlopers: a poetry-writing German officer who’s been put in charge of the English Channel island of Guernsey, where the family’s ancestral home is located, and a mysterious young man who washes ashore unconscious and can’t remember his name or anything about his past. The 10-year-old calls the amnesiac stranger Gabriel, in the belief that he is the angel of biblical lore who’s come to rescue the family from its Nazi captors. Given his enigmatic identity, Gabriel winds up being different things to different people. Given that this is a drama about desperate people who must find their own happiness in wartime, nobody quite gets what they thought they wanted.
Buffini’s 1997 script for Gabriel was brought to Covault’s attention by Garret Storms, the young actor who plays the title role and who also starred as the 17th-century religious philosopher Baruch de Spinoza in a Stage West production last year. Storms saw a staging of Gabriel while he was in school in London and fell in love with the mysterious qualities of the character, though Covault insists that the religious dimension isn’t dealt with in a heavy-handed way by either the playwright or the current cast.
“It’s never plopped right down in front of you, but for audiences who choose to see it, it’s there,” he said. “Or you can choose to think that [the angel stuff] is part of the delusions or fantasies of the characters. The German officer feels that the world is ruled by force and chaos and that he’s a servant to those. He’s bought into the idea that what the Nazis are doing will bring about a better Europe.”
Gabriel is Stage West’s first show with Covault and Dana Schultes in their new roles as the theater’s co-producing directors. (Founder Jerry Russell stepped down from his executive director position last year, though he remains on the board and as a primary creative advisor and actor.) Covault maintains that not a lot has changed for him and Schultes except their fancy new titles. The biggest difference is that Stage West recently hired a business manager. Veteran North Texas stage actor Mark Shum, who starred in the theater’s 2011 production of Arms and the Man, just moved from Dallas to Fort Worth to assume bean-counting duties and most likely to make more appearances before the Stage West footlights. Shum is a rarity among artists, Covault said –– an actor with extensive background in accounting and administration.
As Russell assumes his “director emeritus” role and the theater continues its 34th season, the company would like to produce more new works by area playwrights like last year’s critical and box-office hit The Sports Page by Larry Herold. But Covault, who’s been with Stage West since the beginning, insists that staying creatively fresh and inspired is not a problem for him personally. The job demands it.
“Part of what’s always appealed to me [about the theater] is the variety of projects I’ve done” as a director and actor, he said. “I wouldn’t necessarily choose to be directing three shows in a row, but that’s what’s happened. I hadn’t done a musical in ages, and we just did She Loves Me. After Gabriel, we have this small cast coming up for Taming of the Shrew, which will have a different flavor than many productions. I enjoy switching those gears and looking in new and different places for inspiration.”
Thu-Feb 10 at Stage West, 821 W Vickery Blvd, FW. $28-32. 817-STG-WEST.