England and France are in pretty close proximity to one another. Close enough that there's an underwater train that connects the two countries. But what many Americans probably don't know is they're actually even closer than that.
The Channel Islands are a small cluster of eight islands that could be more accurately described to be off the coast of France than England. And a little known fact about the two Bailiwicks located on the islands is that the British government allowed them to fall to the Nazis during World War II fearing their proximity to France would make them vulnerable anyway.
Moira Buffini's Gabriel, now at Stage West, tells a fictional story about a wealthy family who stayed behind to protect their home after the British evacuated their citizens and the mysterious man they find washed up on the shore one day.
Jeanne Becquet (Dana Schultes) lives in a small cottage on the family's estate, The Hermitage, which the Nazis have commandeered as a base, with her daughter Estelle (Hayley Lenamon), her Jewish daughter-in-law Lily (Tabitha Ray) and her housekeeper Lake (Kelly Pino). The play begins with the young Estelle reciting an incantation and drawing a square of power in chalk around her, pleading with god to send an angel to help them. Immediately, Buffini establishes a supernatural bent to the story.
Jeanne soon returns with the new commanding Nazi officer Von Pfunz (Michael Corolla) who, because she believes can't speak English, she's been toyingly dropping secrets all night. She entertains the Nazis insomuch as it keeps her family safe, but her disdain is palpable and passive aggressively played out in her smiling while insulting way with Von Pfunz. Naturally, this doesn't go well as things usually don't with Nazi's.
The show really kicks off when Lily comes in, having found the naked body of a man passed out on the beach. They bring him back to the cottage and take care of him, but he remains unconscious for three days. Upon waking, with amnesia, it's found that he speaks both fluent English and German, causing both sides to claim him as convenient stories of missing people turn up on both sides. In the meantime, Estelle has named him Gabriel (Garret Storms), a blatant shout out to the supernatural/angel angle of the story.
Gabriel becomes a moral sounding board as both sides are able to impress upon him their position on the conflict and his true heritage. The tension builds as it becomes obvious he'll soon either remember who he is or the playwright will take the easy way out and end the show in an air of mystery. Guess which one she picks?
Gabriel is troubling on a couple of different levels. First, while Buffini should certainly be commended on the attempt at inventiveness and telling the audience a World War II story it hadn't heard a million times, she really stretches to do so. The story of the Channel Islands is no doubt an interesting one, and one that deserves more inspection. But, the supernatural twist is about as subtle as a Nazi rally in Nuremberg. From the very first scene, to Estelle deciding the man's name should be Gabriel, to the ending, the angel allusions are excruciatingly obvious and somewhat trite.
However, it's clear Buffini had noble intentions. She's taken an ambiguous location and, in a way, humanized both sides and allowed her mystery man to be the moral sounding board for the show. It's a fine attempt, it just doesn't quite work.
Of course, that might also have something to do with the sheer length of the show. At two hours and 40 minutes, which includes a 15 minute intermission, the play feels every bit as long as it is. There's enough exposition, proselytizing and moralizing to sink a U-boat. Perhaps a slightly more taut script would allow for the suspension of disbelief to remain strong enough to not role one's eyes at the conveniently supernatural plot turns.
However, those are all notes on the script. What's positive about the show is absolutely everything else. The cast is enchanting and capably keep the audience engaged in the sometimes slogging material. There's not a weak link among them, with Schultes and Ray giving particularly powerful performances. Honestly, the cast makes the play worth watching. Additionally, Corolla and Storms deserve ample credit for their convincing German. Corolla manages a distinctive and consistent German accent when speaking English while Storms goes effortlessly between and English accent and speaking German. On a purely technical level, both men are impressive, which only helps to accentuate strong performances from both.
And naturally, that reflects on the apt direction of Jim Covault. He's pulled some great performances out of the cast and designed a simple but effective two-location set.
The result is an excellent production of a less than stellar script. Granted, there are truly enlightened moments, and Buffini really does get to the heart of the conflict at times. But too often those moments are bookended by overly long scenes overstuffed with meandering exposition, which is probably not too unlike what it might have been like to wait the war out on the small island of Guernsey.