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Theater Review: “Gabriel”

“Gabriel” runs through March 24, 2019 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
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North Coast Repertory Theatre

Faith, treachery, fear, love and even a little magic can be seen in Moira Buffini’s taut, complex and fascinating play “Gabriel,” in its West Coast premiere through March 17 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

The setting is Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The Germans have taken over a lovely house owned by widow Jeanne Becquet (Jessica John), consigning Jeanne, her precocious 10-year-old daughter Estelle (Catalina Zelles) and their housekeeper Lake (Annabella Price) to the rustic farmhouse. Jeanne has also been protecting her Jewish daughter-in-law Lily (Lilli Passero) from the Germans.

Jeanne and Estelle and Lily are hoping for word from son, brother and husband Myles, a pilot who had gone off to war three years before.

Jeanne, presumably in an effort to make the best of a bad situation, has taken up with the new Nazi commander, Major Von Pfunz (Richard Baird) – as she had with his predecessor. In an early scene, Jeanne, a woman of leisure, makes snide remarks about Von Pfunz to Lake on the assumption that he doesn’t speak English. But the Major is way ahead of her and sets the record straight after Jeanne reveals information she will regret.

Baird is masterful as Von Pfunz, with a scalp-tight hairdo, an expression that changes instantly from romantic interest to menace, and, as Jeanne puts it, a name that sounds like flatulence. In an odd twist, he fancies himself a poet, even reading a few of his efforts.

John is a fitting counterpart for Baird, her Jeanne so desperate to find her son that she is willing to curry favor even with Nazis in hopes of getting help in this endeavor.

When a nearly naked, unconscious man (Alan Littlehales) washes up on the beach, Lily decides to rescue him. Lake is afraid of getting into trouble with the Nazis, so Estelle volunteers to go along.

The washed-up human flotsam is injured, unconscious and (we find out when he comes to) has lost his memory. He doesn’t know who he is or where he’s from. He speaks both English and German fluently. Is he the missing SS member? A British soldier? Myles, perhaps?

Estelle wants to put him in the “magic square” she is fond of drawing on the floor. She’s convinced she has summoned him as a savior with incantations in that square, which explains why she wants to call him Gabriel.

There aren’t many adult plays in which the pivotal character is a 10-year-old, which may be why this city hasn’t seen this amazing 1997 play before. But Zelles is up to the monumental task of appearing in nearly every scene, and providing the gumption, fearlessness (tempered, fortunately, with smarts and nerve) that make her a major player in this drama.

Price is fine as the keep-your-head-down Lake, whose main goal is survival.

Passero is excellent as Lily, the character with the real survival problem, who sometimes has a to choose between hiding out and the attempt to find her husband.

Littlehales is fine as the mystery man (and the object of several characters’ fantasies) who just wants to know who he is.

Marty Burnett’s versatile set serves the script well, and Elisa Benzoni’s costumes are excellently placed in time.

Matt Novotny’s moody lighting and Ryan Ford’s sound design serve the spooky nature of the plot well.

“Gabriel” is longer than most plays (running nearly three hours), and filled with more topics to ponder than three average plays (faith, treachery, fear, even magic). But between Christopher Williams’ fine direction, the playwright’s excellent words and this sterling cast, it doesn’t seem that long.

The details

“Gabriel” runs through March 24, 2019 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.