‘‘If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.’’
— Adolph Hitler
Major von Pfunz, installed on the Channel Island of Guernsey as the Nazis occupied it in 1943, always fancied himself a bit of a poet. Then again, his Fuhrer thought he was a writer, and look at what he turned out with the cowflop otherwise known as Mein Kampf.
Both men had a knack for sussing the truth in matters of war — but their beliefs in their own press would eventually bring them down wholesale, saving the world from a Thousand-Year Reich of potboiler plots and diaper-laden nursery rhymes.The difference is that von Pfunz is a fictional character and an industrial-grade twit. We get to witness his demise as rendered in Gabriel, Moira Buffini’s testament to family loyalty and its inherent perils amid Nazi occupation. For some, the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production will lack a certain epilogic feel amid the wartime setting — but under director Christopher Williams, whose fine cast fields the script’s situational slants with unerring cadence, this piece is decidedly worth seeing.
There’s a lot going on here, and Buffini wastes no time in telling her story accordingly. Her Jeanne Becquet and family are confined to Jeanne’s ancestral island home, with the widowed Jeanne sizzing over the occupation — but at heart, she’s a living, breathing lie and a rich man’s skank, mindful of the perks that accompany collaboration with the enemy (hint: She was doing the stinky with the officer von Pfunz replaced).
In Jeanne’s absence, her daughter-in-law Lily discovers an unconscious young man on the beachside; she and her ten-year-old sister Estelle spirit him to the attic, where he awakens to a serious bout of amnesia. The smitten Estelle, believing she’s summoned him as a savior from heaven, names him Gabriel.
One thing leads to another, including the flush of romance between Lily and the mysterious visitor. By then, housekeeper Lake has revealed his identity (in a blatantly underexplained passage) — what follows is the frenetic central scene, wherein Jeanne must culminate her lifetime of lies in order to protect her family. At the same time, von Pfunz’s jig is long past up, the major having relinquished his guise of authority amid memories of his ghastly command at the concentration camps (the topic of his would-be poetry).
Buffini never really succumbs to the temptation, but she often comes close.
Buffini does enjoy her turns of phrase, all right. Her protracted, vowel-driven language underscores every moment of the show, to the point wherein its artistry nearly commands focus at the expense of the story. That approach fuels the air of mystery surrounding Gabriel, but it does so while everyone else’s enigmas are deconstructed — and while that’s not the end of the world, it beckons the balance of the action askew. Buffini never really succumbs to the temptation, but she often comes close.
But my, for the spirit of ensemble here. Everybody is across the street from everybody else, playing off the others’ inflections and ideas as though they’re their own. This is as orderly a proceeding as you care, from Jessica John’s brutally efficient Jeanne (she has two of the most soulless eyes I’ve ever seen) to Richard Baird’s hebophrenic von Pfunz. Underneath all that puerile civility beats the heart of a Hitlerian coward — and Baird wonderfully ushers his character out of the action when the bill for his sins comes due.
Alan Littlehales’ Gabriel is an orphan in the storm, part of the show’s most intriguing subtextual relationship. He bears a striking resemblance to Myles, Lily’s absentee pilot husband; their relationship quietly subsumes a family unit among Lily (Lilli Passero) and the astute Estelle (Catalina Zelles), with all three players collaborating like a respectable family should.And dig Annabella Price’s affectations for housekeeper Lake! Lake despises the Nazis, and the furrow at her brow says it all; in the next minute, her cackle of irony fills the house with the hard-won laughter of an indefatigable spirit.
Matt Novotny’s lights are as essential a tool as Marty Burnett’s set design here — the shafts burst through the slats as if to beckon the characters to the truths Jeanne conceals, and it’s a wonderful effect. Elisa Benzoni does it again with her costumery; the dresswear tells us as much about the characters as it does their inspirations.
Say what you want about Adolph, but he was 1,348 percent correct about the nature of untruths. They absolutely do take on lives of their own, as he was so adept at demonstrating on the global stage. Jeanne Becquet had a family at stake accordingly, and her own foray into falsehood assumes a similar nature of deceit. While Gabriel could use a shot of retrospect to that end, the cast’s craftsmanship handsomely holds its own. Very, very good.
This review is based on the matinee performance of Feb. 24. Gabriel runs through March 24 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-B Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. $44-49. 858-481-1055, northcoastrep.org.