Gaunt, cardigan’d and gray-complected, Norman fusses with bits-and-pieces inside the caravan-shaped dressing room standing brightly lit and isolated at the front of the otherwise bare stage of San Jose Repertory Theatre. Proprietor of this clutter of mirrors and wigs, clothes racks and kettles, the bent and rumply Norman anxiously waits. “This was their finest hour” echoes from a radio. England it is, during the Blitz—some Guildford or Sudbury market town where this Company of Players led by Sir, an aged, mentally disintegrating actor, brings Shakespeare to the provinces.

Norman is aghast to learn that Sir has collapsed in “untoward” circumstances: unrobed, having stomped on his hat. “He was so proud of it,” says the dresser, fondly brushing the flattened hat, “from his Canadian tour.” With a faint fluttery affectation that marks him as among those eternally trodden upon, Norman, with catty and spot-on hilarious observations, flattering and scolding, keeps Sir going, and the Company’s production on track.

Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser focuses tightly on these two: the fast-failing Sir, played by an alternately stentorian or whimpering Ken Ruta, himself a theater legend of considerable proportions, and his longtime dresser, Norman, drawn with brilliant nuance by James Carpenter. Rachel Harker, as Sir’s beleaguered wife, bespeaks an affection exhausted beyond bearing. Spinster Stage Manager Lynne Soffer, very practical, stays with Sir the only way she can. Blythe Foster is tight-sweatered perfection as Irene, an aspiring young actress ready to squirm her way into the theater on Sir’s welcoming lap. Sir’s self-obsession has brought them all to this place. The rest of the cast is in another play. The other play is King Lear: Sir’s 227th performance of Shakespeare’s most challenging role. In The Dresser’s first act, we see disaster loom: the star just isn’t up to it. But Ruta (Lear in several acclaimed productions in the Bay Area) is simultaneously eliciting pity, admiration and a little scorn.

San Jose Rep provides a novel perspective on the play within the play in an all-hands-on-deck second act. From the wings, we see the Company perform to their unseen audience beyond the curtain, stage right. While bombs drop around them, they go on, as much for the noble reason, as in Churchill’s “finest hour” speech, that “if we fail, then the whole world … will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.” But also because the players in this ragtag group, too old, feeble or “undesirable” for military service, are the theatrical equivalent of old men and children manning the barricades with pitchforks and flintlocks: In the face of everything … they can do nothing else.

The Dresser
Through Feb. 20
San Jose Repertory Theatre
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