A woman comes upon an unconscious, naked man washed up on a rocky beach. His rescue should be straightforward except it’s a Nazi-occupied island during World War II and she’s a Jew out past curfew. Ensuring the enemy doesn’t get wind of this adds to a pile of secrets already held by members of a desperate household at the center of “Gabriel,” receiving its West Coast Premiere at The North Coast Rep.
The island is Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands in the English Channel, located nearer to French soil than to Mother England. Deemed indefensible due to its remote location, the British Government demilitarized the skinny nine-mile outcropping; the result of which is it and the rest of the Channel Islands become the only part of the British Isles occupied by the German Army during the war.
The woman who finds the marooned man is Lily (Lilli Passero) who missed the last evacuation boat to the UK. She lives uneasily under forged documents and the regret of an empty marriage to a British pilot missing in action. Lily’s mother-in-law is the haughty, defiant aristocrat Jeanne (Jessica John), who dabbles in the black market to make ends meet after her manor house is appropriated by Nazi officers. Jeanne, her 10-year-old daughter Estelle (Catalina Zelles), housekeeper Mrs. Lake (Annabella Price) and Lily live crammed into little more than a shed to which is added the comatose man who young Estelle has tenderly bestowed the name Gabriel (Alan Littlehales).
Hoping to gain a measure of protection, Jeanne uses her feminine wiles to cozy up to the commanding officer, Major von Pfunz (Richard Baird). Theirs is an uneasy alliance with more than one conversation ending with Jeanne asking: “Are you going to arrest me?” Baird nails the enormous range required of the role of von Pfunz initially portraying the officer as a comic stereotype then incrementally proceeding to a nuanced, sinister reveal.
Gabriel eventually comes to but has no memory of who he is or what happened to him. Adding to the mystery of his origin is Gabriel’s ability to launch into fluent English and German. Lengthy exchanges with the major are quite impressive, extending far beyond bitte and danke.
Speculation, wishful thinking and village gossip (courtesy of intelligence gathering by the ever-resourceful Mrs. Lake) come up with three plausible explanations for Gabriel’s appearance, but harboring him under any of these scenarios exposes the women to an assortment of escalating consequences, none of which is appealing.
Meanwhile, Estelle who believes herself invincible after performing incantations within a chalk square drawn on the floor launches her own secret war of terror against the Germans. Navigating the crawl spaces of the manor house that she knows so well, she engineers ghostly sounds, moves items around perplexingly and empties her bladder into von Pfunz’s boots. This is a meaty role and Catalina Zelles is a marvel who displays acting chops on par with any of the adults. Rock-solid direction by Christopher Williams.
The coastal shack in which all the action takes place created by set designer Marty Burnett from salt-air weathered wood slates placed at a diagonal with ample space in between for a shifting pattern of colors, courtesy of light designer Matt Novotny, that signify day, night and rising emotions. Additional mood elements conveyed by the occasional cries of seagulls, breakers upon the shore and the unnerving distant drone of fighter aircraft.
Costume designer Elisa Benzoni covers all the bases with Jeanne’s elegant, pedigreed wardrobe; von Pfunz’s spit-and-polish uniform; Lily’s poor-relation sweaters and shapeless skirts; Mrs. Lake’s house dress and omnipresent apron; Estelle’s school girl uniform complete with knee socks; and the initial cladding of Gabriel’s naked form in a long plaid nightshirt and later a white cricket outfit whose previous owners were the women’s menfolk. Hair and wig design by Peter Herman. The believable German and upper crust and cockney English accents are the impressive work of dialect coach Victoria Hanlin.
The history of the Channel Island during the war begs a contemporary question: What is Guernsey’s fate relative to Brexit?
The Channel Islands is among a handful of “Crown Dependencies” that are independent countries with a unique relationship to the UK. Crown Dependencies are self-governing and can set laws not controlled by the British government. For example, in 1973, the Channel Islands decided to remain outside of the European Union. This means its constitutional and trading relationships with the UK and the European Union will be unaffected by the outcome of Brexit. In other words, this time Guernsey won’t be thrown under the bus.
By Lynne Friedmann