Review: North Coast Rep’s mysterious, atmospheric ‘Gabriel’ a showcase for sharp acting


Angels are where you find them — and if one washes up on a rocky shoreline instead of descending from the heavens, well, deliverance can still arrive on soggy wings.

That’s the conviction of the fervent young Estelle, whose family is living under Nazi occupation on the rugged British isle of Guernsey in Moira Buffini’s atmospheric and fascinating play “Gabriel.”

North Coast Rep just opened an expertly acted West Coast premiere of the piece — and the fact “Gabriel” has been around since 1997 might make you wonder what took it so long to get here.

One possible reason is that it’s not easy to find an actor both young enough and with sufficiently sophisticated acting chops to play Estelle, who’s at the emotional heart of the story.

So all due credit to Catalina Zelles, who has been a standout youth actor in mostly smaller roles on stages around town. She steps impressively into her own here as this savvy, almost diabolically imaginative character, who manages to torment the German interlopers in lots of satisfying ways.

Her very tuned-in turn is of a piece with her cast mates’ fine, layered work in director Christopher Williams’ absorbing production, which ratchets up tension inexorably over the play’s nearly three-hour span.

If that sounds long, it doesn’t really feel like it. It’s true that after all the buildup and head-fakes, the play’s ending feels a little flat, and there are rare moments when cast members’ reactions don’t come off as completely authentic.

But as both an acting showcase and simply a worthy work of entertainment, “Gabriel” delivers.

The play’s name is the same one Estelle bestows on the comatose young man (played by Alan Littlehales) whom she and her older sister-in-law, Lily (Lilli Passero), rescue from the rocks. It so happens Estelle had been performing makeshift incantations in hopes of bringing back her brother, who’s missing in the war. So she takes Gabriel’s arrival as a sign.

But things are dire on the island: Estelle’s mom, Jeanne, is dealing in the black market to try and feed the family, which has been shoved out of its home by the Nazis into a sketchy shack (designed by Marty Burnett with rustic detail) that they share with housekeeper Lake, played by Annabella Price.

Jeanne is also fending off the advances of Major Von Pfunz (Richard Baird), the wheedling Nazi commander who fancies himself a poet but whose ideas about “purity” prove ominous and appalling.

The accomplished Baird displays a startling range of emotions here, in a portrayal that’s the very opposite of a vanity turn. The major’s high-and-tight haircut and owlish specs are about as fetching as his air of soulless menace, and he swivels scarily between smugness and anger, with a streak of the pathetically sentimental.

John is tough and funny and perfectly brittle as the world-weary Jeanne, whose insults toward Von Pfunz (at one point she says his name sounds like flatulence) only seem to stoke his creepy fascination with her.

Much of the drama comes to center on Lily’s heritage and how it fits into the growing rumors of death camps in Europe; Passero (a onetime finalist on NBC-TV’s “The Voice”) brings just the right notes of hope, resignation and apprehension to the role, as she nurses Gabriel back to health.

Price, so good in NCRT’s “Chapatti” three years ago, has a bit less to do here but lends warmth and humor to Lake. And Littlehales capably navigates Gabriel’s agonies, as he struggles to remember who he is and why he’s there. One confounding factor for the family: He turns out to speak fluent German. (Both Baird and Littlehales handle that aspect convincingly.)

It’s worth remembering that while the trumpet-toting Angel Gabriel appears across multiple religious traditions in various incarnations, one of his identities is as a protector of the Jewish people.

Whether the islanders’ Gabriel is a celestial visitor or just a “very strange enchanted boy” — as the lyrics go to “Nature Boy” in Ryan Ford’s evocative sound design — his presence will herald the tones of a requiem before play’s end.


When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 17.

Where: North Coast Rep, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Tickets: $42-$53 (discounts available).

Phone: (858) 481-1055


Twitter: @jimhebert