I was looking forward to learning about contemporary English playwright through two of her works which will be produced as part of the U of A Studio Theatre season, but last week I had the chance to expand my knowledge of her work through seeing a production of her 1997 play Gabriel in the Bleviss Laboratory Theatre on campus (the former Media Room), directed by Amanda Bergen, MFA Directing candidate.
Gabriel is set in a gloomy farmhouse in occupied Guernsey during World War II. The family occupying the house comprises Jeanne (Kristi Hansen), her daughter-in-law Lily (Zoe Glassman), her young daughter Estelle (Sadie Bowling, last seen in last year’s Christmas Carol), and their housekeeper Lake (Monica Maddaford). Dave Clarke is Von Pfunz, an officer of the occupying army, and Graham Mothersill appears as an unidentified man discovered unconscious on the beach, to whom they refer as Gabriel. One of the patterns in this tense situation is women confiding in men whom they believe won’t be able to understand them, Jeanne to the German-speaking officer and Lily to the unconscious man. This is a convenient script device allowing the audience to learn more about the women’s points of view, but also a way of illustrating how each of them is private and alone in the crowded little house. Estelle, who is aged about ten or eleven, resents the German occupiers and takes a variety of rebellious actions, from esoteric (chalking a ‘square of power’) to more practical (trying to make the soldiers think the house they’re staying in is haunted, vandalizing the commander’s boots). Sadie Bowling captures her earnest stubbornness without being cute. Jeanne’s quite different survival tactics are portrayed sympathetically by Kristi Hansen, whose set jaw and careful poise work well in the period piece.
Gabriel awakens and recovers his health but not his memory. Lily dresses him in some of her late husband’s clothes which had not already been repurposed, giving him the odd appearance of being dressed for a cricket or tennis match surrounded by people in old dark-coloured garments as would seem more appropriate for rural people in wartime. He appears to speak both English and German fluently, so while the family is determined to protect him from the occupying force, they are more interested in finding a safe background story than a true one. Stakes are raised when we learn that Lily’s background is Jewish, that her documentation has been falsified, and that the German commander knows.
Personally, I’m usually suspicious about fictional characters named Gabriel because of how often they turn out to be either dead or angelic. And enough ambiguity was left in the outcome of Gabriel that my theory still holds.