Reviewed by Judy Richter
Directing "The Dresser," Ronald Harwood's homage to the theater, San Jose Repertory Theatre artistic director Rick Lombardo has the luxury of having two of the Bay Area's finest actors in the lead roles. Ken Ruta plays Sir, the aging actor-manager of a ragtag British theatrical troupe in 1942, while James Carpenter plays Norman, Sir's longtime dresser. While Sir gets all the applause for playing all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, Norman is the one keeping him together backstage.
Both performances are magnificent. Ruta's Sir is deteriorating physically and mentally, but thanks to Norman, he pulls himself together for one last performance as Lear. In the meantime, fussy Norman, who's probably a closeted homosexual, caters to Sir's every whim and keeps pushing him in the right direction. Although Norman seems unflappable, Carpenter's subtle gestures and facial expressions betray Norman's inner turmoil. Secret nips on a bottle of brandy also are telltale signs.
The supporting cast is solid with Rachel Harker as Her Ladyship, Sir's mate and leading lady; Lynne Soffer as Madge, the spinster stage manager who has secretely been in love with Sir; and Julian López-Morillas as Geoffrey Thornton, a third-rate actor who plays Lear's Fool. Blythe Foster overplays the role of Irene, the aspiring actress who hopes to advance her career by seducing Sir. Blake Ellis plays Oxenby, another third-rate actor in the troupe.
The set is by Kent Dorsey, with lighting by David Lee Cuthbert and right-on period costumes by Cathleen Edwards. Steve Schoenbeck designed the sound, which features some scary air raid sirens and bombs.
The play runs nearly three hours, but seldom drags, thanks in large part to Ruta, Carpenter and director Lombardo.