Everyman Theatre offers atmospheric revival of 'The Dresser'

The well-seasoned, if unsteady, Shakespearean actor known only as "Sir" in Ronald Harwood's 1980 play "The Dresser" has an ego the size of Wales. No surprise there. But he also has enough dependency and self-esteem issues to keep an analyst busy for decades.

The wonder is that anyone would put up with, let alone attend to, such a demanding mess of a man. But Norman, who dresses and sees to any other of Sir's backstage needs, has long carried devotion to an extreme. After so many years of doting and enabling, neither man can fully exist without the other.

Set in January 1942 at some humble theater in the British provinces where Sir and his company are presenting "King Lear," despite the air raids, "The Dresser" makes for an interesting winter's tale of love, loyalty and loathing. Everyman Theatre spins that tale to generally satisfying effect in a revival directed by Derek Goldman.

This Harwood drama, inspired by the writer’s experience working as a dresser for actor and theater company manager Donald Wolfit, is perhaps best known for the 1983 film version. The screen treatment gave Sir (memorably portrayed by Albert Finney) quite a few opportunities to strut his Shakespeare on the boards.

The play isn't quite as generous, so Sir ends up defined more by his frailties than the lingering resonance of his art. You're never quite sure whether Sir's acting had ever been capable of a tour de force before he was forced to tour.

But Carl Schurr's deftly shaded performance in the Everyman staging nonetheless creates a persuasive portrait of a man who clearly cannot breathe outside the theater, who desperately needs to hold onto the whole mad world of makeup and making do. Sir may not always know what play he is supposed to perform on a given night, or where, but he never forgets how good a spotlight can feel.

Schurr is especially telling in those moments when Sir is at his most vulnerable — moments that also bring out the best in Bruce Randolph Nelson as the doting, emoting Norman.

Nelson's accent isn't entirely convincing, but his acting often rings true. He certainly makes clear how much Norman lives vicariously though Sir and gains a kind of confidence from that, even when taken completely for granted.

Although Deborah Hazlett doesn't sound terribly British, either, she offers her usual, impressive nuances as Her Ladyship, Sir's far-from-contented wife. (It's extra fun to hear Hazlett deliver the line: "I should have left you in Baltimore on the last American tour.")

There are sturdy performances from Megan Anderson as the stage manager and Emily Vere Nicoll as a young, would-be actress all too eager to please (Nicoll sports the best accent in the cast). And, for true comic relief, there's a delicious turn by Wil Love as the timid actor forced to play the Fool to Sir's Lear — an ideal demonstration of the there-are-no-small-parts philosophy of acting.

The costumes (Julie Potter) and sound design (Chas Marsh) add to James Fouchard's scenic design, which provides an impressively atmospheric place for Sir and Norman to fret and strut.

There have been more compelling efforts by Everyman this season, but this staging of "The Dresser" nonetheless provides a welcome opportunity to experience a play that celebrates the art and heart, the illusion and addiction of theater.

"The Dresser" continues through March 23.

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