Richard Baird and Jessica John in "Gabriel" at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Photo by Aaron Rumley
Germany’s only occupation of the British Isles during World War II was of the Channel Islands, which included Guernsey off the coast of Normandy. That’s the setting for Moira Buffini’s Gabriel, a tense drama shrouded in mystery and dark secrets.
It’s 1943 and Jeanne Becquet (Jessica John), her young daughter Estelle (Catalina Zelles), her daughter-in-law Lily (Lilli Passero) and a housekeeper (Annabella Price) have been turned out of their home by the occupying Germans and forced to live in digs where half the time the power is out. Contemptuous of the occupiers but deft and pragmatic, Jeanne works the black market and keeps a predatory and pompous major named Von Pfunz (Richard Baird) on a string. Then into their lives comes a stranger, a body washed up on the shore, barely alive. Lily and Estelle nurse the handsome young man, who has no memory, back to health. The child calls him “Gabriel,” and the name sticks. But who he really is – a missing German SS man, a wayward Englishman with a terminal disease, a manifestation of Jeanne’s missing son, or an otherworldly angel befitting his “name” – is an open question and the catalyst for the play’s intrigue, intensity and raw emotion.
Christopher Williams directs North Coast Repertory Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Gabriel, which debuted way back in 1997. This is an anxious, suspenseful production, if at times glacially paced. Each major character requires considerable time to reveal himself or herself, and in the case of the mysterious Gabriel (Alan Littlehales) the question of whether there ever will be answers looms throughout.
There’s no question about the depth of the principal performances. Both John and Baird are first-rate, bringing to the fore the ambiguity and inscrutability of the complicated relationship between Jeanne and Von Pfunz. Meanwhile Passero, a newcomer to the North Coast Rep stage and a former finalist on NBC’s “The Voice,” balances strength and vulnerability as Lily, drawn as if in a magical dream to Gabriel while as a Jewish woman afraid for her very life in the presence of the Germans.
Though over two and a half hours in length, Gabriel is riveting and, from a historical perspective, haunting as well. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/27/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.