Heartbreaking “The Dresser” Closes Out St. Louis Actors’ Studio Season

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John Contini, David Wassilak and Richard Lewis in “The Dresser” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Playwright Ronald Harwood has crafted several plays set in the theatre about actors, but “The Dresser” is probably his most poignant and deeply affecting play. It’s the current production at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. During the beginning of the war in Europe in 1942, air raid sirens shriek through the night as a troupe of actors attempts to stage “King Lear” in the English Provinces while everyone’s life seems to be on hold.

At the heart of the show are Sir, an aging actor who has bouts of insecurity and doubt which may show signs of approaching senility and his loyal dresser of 16 years, Norman. Though Sir has affection for Norman, he constantly berates him for his own forgetfulness as he tries to blame his battle with lines and other business on his dresser. On the other hand, Norman simply adores Sir and it shows in his devotion and his defense of Sir’s foibles to others who would argue against his failings.

David Wassilak gives an emotion-ridden performance as Norman. You can see the aguish in his face and hear it in his voice as he tries to support the faltering actor. On scene especially caught my eye as Sir’s long suffering wife, Her Ladyship, flips off a statement, “Who wants to see him act anyway?” After a pause, with a look of pity and, ironically, self doubt, Norman responds, “There’s bound to be someone.” That moment sums up the devotion and love he has for his mentor and hero.

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John Contini as Sir and David Wassilak as Norman in the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Dresser.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Veteran John Contini who, in another ironic twist, actually played Lear on this stage a few season ago, is nothing short of brilliant as the aging actor. His bluster and bravado have not waned even if his ability to remember the opening line has. Chatting with Mr. Contini after the show, he said he feels this is an even more difficult role than that of King Lear. The nuance and balance between a proud actor and the fear that he may be losing his ability to continue is something to behold. It’s a polished and heartbreaking performance.

Missy Heinemann is superb as Her Ladyship. She too treads a tight line between her devotion to her husband and irritation with the often reckless decisions he is beginning to make. Emily Baker is hilarious as the stage manager, Madge, who really keeps the offstage production of “King Lear” running despite the air raid sirens and the questionable delays in getting Sir onto the stage and the hold-your-breath drama of getting him through yet another performance. Also a highlight is Bridgette Basa as a young actress who is rescued from yet another lascivious encounter with the rakish Sir in his dressing room.

As a particular whipping boy to Sir, Richard Lewis is sad but funny as he is dressed down  (dressed as a clown) by the actor while Chuck Brinkley gives dead pan humor to his role as one actor who stands up to the great Sir. Rounding out the cast are two non-speaking roles as Lear’s men, Jeremy Goldmeier and Anthony Heinemann.

Director Bobby Miller has brought a deft touch to this sad story laced with wicked humor. He brings out the sympathy without reaching too far into the maudlin. Patrick Huber has once again spun his magic on the intricate set design that makes a very small stage seem open and inviting. Dalton Robinson provides a wonderful lighting design and, another magician of the theatre, Teresa Doggett, has brought us an incredible costume design that evokes the majesty of the theatre in 1942.

I talked to Wayne Salomon after the performance (yes, we were in the men’s room at adjoining urinals) about how St. Louis Actors’ Studio is like the reincarnation of one of the greatest theatre troupes of old, Theatre Project Company. Wayne, along with Bobby Miller (one of the founding members), John Contini and David Wassilak were all part of TPC. In fact several folks I talked to at the cast party expressed the same feeling. In fact, we may hear more about Theatre Project Company in the future.

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Missy Heinemann, Emily Baker, David Wassilak and John Contini in “The Dresser” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Enough reminiscing- audiences are just happy that we have such a distinguished company playing our area today. “The Dresser” is part of that heritage now and it will join the ranks of outstanding theatre produced in Gaslight Square over the years. “The Dresser” plays through April 29th. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

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