Gabriel produced by Walking Shadow Theatre Co. at the Theater Garage

Lily Wangerin, Ross Destiche, Miriam Schwartz, Katherine Kupiecki in "Gabriel." Photo by Dan Norman.

Lily Wangerin, Ross Destiche, Miriam Schwartz, Katherine Kupiecki in “Gabriel.” Photo by Dan Norman.

It is 3+ years into World War II. The British island of Guernsey, situated perilously close to the European continent, is under German occupation. It’s a fairly cushy assignment for a German officer, and a tenuous balance of control and limited tolerance is maintained with the few local residents who have not fled to England.

In “Gabriel” produced by Walking Shadow Theatre Co., a well-to-do Guernsey family, sans their men, has been displaced from their large house to a small cottage by the sea. They make do, dealing in black market goods – food, mostly. Jean (Katherine Kupiecki), mother of Estelle (Lily Wangerin), about 10-years old; and mother-in-law of Lily (Miriam Schwartz), who is Jewish, heads up the household, which also includes Margaret Lake, a housekeeper, played by Janet Paone.

A Nazi officer, Major Von Pfunz (Wade A. Vaughn) is infatuated with Jeanne, whose willful lying, teasing and opportunistic bargaining with him just fuels his ardor. “It thrills me to hear you lie, Jean,” he says. She finds him disgusting, but we quickly learn that Jean will do what she must to survive and protect her little family.

One night, Lily discovers a man washed up on the beach. He is naked, so there’s no way to know who he is – or which side he’s on. He’s barely alive, but Lily is determined to save his life, in spite of multiple dangers in taking in a stranger. He survives, but has no memory. He speaks German fluently and English like a native. So, who is he?

This device creates a bed of intrigue and sensuousness for British playwright Moira Buffini to dramatize emotional entanglements that spread out and reach far beyond this mystery person’s identity. Eventually, we know all about everybody – except the man, who Estelle has named Gabriel. Lily reveals her feelings of entrapment on the island, poured out to the man she presumes is unconscious; Estelle credits her “square of power” with bringing him to them; Lake is enamored of the handsome young charmer. But it is Jean, the family’s anchor, who makes the most pragmatic use of his appearance.

Although the play is long, encumbered by more detail and repetition than the premise requires, it is powered by insightful dialogue and curious twists and turns, and with fine performances by the small cast, it all makes for a truly absorbing evening.

Wonderful line delivery by Paone; Lake is glib in her conversation, but is as solid as her ample physical frame. Wangerin is very young to be playing such a large and pivotal role. Although my companion and I missed hearing some of her lines, and I would have liked to see her focus more consistently on the character to whom she is speaking, I do admire her command of the role, and she was unquestionably appealing. Quite an accomplishment for one so young.

Vaughn’s portrayal of the Major pushed over the edge into caricature in the play’s lighter moments, but it was, to a degree, a role within a role, with the Major playing a part for Jeanne, too. Vaughn’s final scene is so riveting that I forgive him his over-the-top moments. Ross Destiche as Gabriel is certainly charming and his speeches in perfect German made for fascinating interplay among the other characters.

But it was Kupiecki as Jeanne who bowled me over. It is rare for me to forget that I am seeing acting at all, and I love it when that happens. She was the perfect blend of powerhouse and vulnerability, pleasure and pain, fear and determination. A simply great performance.

Worth noting: this is the most functional set I’ve seen in a long while in this performance space, and lighting enhanced it beautifully. Kudos, as well, to director Amie Rummenie.

“Gabriel” runs through Oct. 11 at the Theater Garage.

How Was the Show for You?

Your email address will not be published.