Award-winning play ‘The Dresser’ opens this weekend

During a German bomb blitz on London during War World II, a complex relationship is unfolding between a Shakespearean actor and his dresser in an English play. Watching a play within a play can be challenging unless the backstage drama is so captivating the mirrored theme dissolves into one solid story. This drama is sensationally captured in Ronald Harwood’s award-winning “The Dresser.” The play runs at the North Coast Repertory (NCP) Theatre Jan. 17 to Feb. 8, and stars noted actor Jonathan McMurtry in the pivotal role of Sir.

“The Dresser” was nominated for Best Play at the Laurence Olivier Awards in 1980 and has remained a popular play. NCP’s director David Ellenstein said the period piece is both fun and a challenge.

“I like plays that are literate, about the theater and have higher ideas,” Ellenstein said. “It’s a valentine to theater about the magic of the theater, as well as being semi-autobiographical of Harwood who was the dresser for Donald Wolfit, one of England’s greatest Shakespearean actors. Although the play has been embellish and changed, you feel Harwood knows what he’s writing about.”

Ronald Harwood is a renowned playwright (“Country Matters”) novelist and TV and feature film writer. He scripted the TV movie biopics “Evita Peron” and “Mandela.” He won the 2003 Academy Award for his screenplay of “The Pianist.” More recent films include “Love In The Time of Cholera” and 2008’s “Australia.” Ellenstein feels Harwood’s works make good selections for the stage.

“He came from the theater, and he understands it and makes it work,” Ellenstein said. “He understands the world of unique personalities that portray the loftiness and pettiness of the story that is present in this play. The backstage drama is always heightened because of the people you’re dealing with, and theater people tend to be very theatrical so the human interaction gets taken to funny and absurd theatrical proportions this play.”

Famed actor Jonathan McMurtry has graced several of San Diego’s theatrical stages. As his personal friend as well as an admirer of his talents, Ellenstein said he would not have attempted this production had McMurtry not accepted the role of Sir.

“Very few people are left that are right for this role,” Ellenstein said. “Jonathan is steeped in Shakespeare and the theater. He has studied in England and has elements of this kind of style in his work. And he’s playing an actor who is playing King Lear so audiences get snippets of King Lear as he makes up and says a few lines so it’s really great to watch.”

Some often question who is the lead role in “The Dresser,” Sir or Norman, the dresser.

“They’re equal,” Ellenstein said. “The play is about the relationship between two men who have been together 16 years. We have a great cast. Sean Sullivan is playing Norman. He’s performed at The Old Globe and is very capable in this role. His wife, Lynne Griffin, is Madge, the stage manager. Susan Denaker plays Her Ladyship, the wife of Sir. Jason Maddy is Oxenby, a company member in the play. Mark Petrich, who has appeared in many Rep productions, plays Geoffrey, an older member of the company. We have a newcomer to Rep, Kali Kirk, as an apprentice in the King Lear play who has stars in her eyes.”

Ellenstein is excited to bring this reputed play to the stage and is certain patrons will be thoroughly entertained.

“It’s been exciting to watch the play come together so smoothly as everyone came in so prepared for their roles,” Ellenstein said. “This is a very funny and yet heartbreaking story where the audience members will laugh one minute and be totally moved the next.”

‘The Dresser’

  • Jan. 17 – Feb. 8
  • North Coast Repertory Theatre
  • 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
  • (858) 481-1055