The public dialogue about Alzheimer's disease that followed the death of President Ronald Reagan makes Steppenwolf Theatre Company's choice of "The Dresser," a play by Ronald Harwood first performed the year Reagan was elected, a timely selection. This backstage story, gently but firmly directed by Amy Morton, depicts the last day in the life of Sir (John Mahoney), an aging actor touring second-rate repertory Shakespeare, and Sir's relationship with the bedraggled company around him, most especially with his dresser of 16 years, Norman (Tracy Letts).
World War II is on in full force, and everything is crumbling. England herself is falling apart, with bombs falling. Sir's relationship with his wife, Her Ladyship (Mary Beth Fisher), is on edge. Her Ladyship is too old to be playing Cordelia in tonight's performance of "King Lear," the cast of which is old and/or lame, as all able-bodied young men are at war.
As Sir, Mahoney ably makes the transition between tyrannous, egocentric actor-manager and feeble old man. His raspy voice gives Sir a gruffness and unpolished finish, perfect as a has-been actor who was never truly great. By pairing him with the tall, broad-shouldered Letts, Mahoney looks even frailer.
Having been Sir's dresser for the last 16 years, Norman's entire identity is wrapped up in serving the actor. He is the Fool to Sir's Lear (a painfully obvious metaphor), at times ridiculous, at times viciously protective. In the end, as Sir cuts Norman to the quick by taking him for granted colossally, Letts gives Norman a bile that holds the mirror up to anyone who has served and loved tirelessly without recognition.
As Her Ladyship, Mary Beth Fisher's dialect is not as spot-on as it might be, but she gives the role a moxie that is admirable. Peggy Roeder is impressive as the hard-faced stage manager who has spent the last two decades lovesick for Sir. Mike Nussbaum, however, wins the prize as Geoffrey, the humble older actor who has been thrown into the role of the Fool. Nussbaum's comically pitiful portrayal is so heartbreaking that one feels ashamed of laughing at his feeble line readings and oversized jester costume, made for a younger actor now doing his military duty.
The stage is dominated by Santo Loquasto's tremendous rotating set, which depicts the backstage left wing of the theatre, including Sir's dressing room, a wind machine, the fly gallery, and a peek onstage. I wish the set would turn further and more often, to let us see more.
I confess that initially I was puzzled by the casting of Mahoney as Sir, a role played by a much more robust Albert Finney on screen. But Mahoney won me over so thoroughly that, at this moment, I can't imagine the role played with more perfection.