FORT WORTH The symbolism of the titular name given to a fallen man -- it's thought he fell from a downed plane in World War II over the British Channel Islands, occupied by the Germans -- in Moira Buffini's play Gabriel is so strong that the audience is sure he's going to sprout wings at some point.
That he doesn't is one of the reasons the play, having an area premiere at Stage West in a production that sings with talent, is so haunting. There are many ways it could go, and to be sure, at times the melodrama threatens to turn a good play into a soggy one. But under Jim Covault's direction, the trap is avoided.
Widow Jeanne (Dana Schultes), who has lost a son in the war, has relocated to a smaller home with her young daughter Estelle (Hayley Lenamon) and daughter-in-law Lily (Tabitha Ray), overseen by caretaker Ms. Lake (Kelly Pino). Jeanne, once used to a lavish lifestyle, carries on with an older German officer Von Pfunz (Michael Corolla), mostly as a means to keep her family safe. One of their main secrets is that Lily is Jewish.
Everything is up in the air after Lily finds a naked, unconscious man (Garret Storms) on the beach. She and Estelle bring him to the house andnourish him back to health. He has no memory beyond one of falling from the sky. He has a British accent, but also speaks German. Is he British soldier, translator or civilian, or a German spy? Or something else?
Just when you think you have it figured out, there's another twist, which keeps you going through the nearly three-hour production. There's something about Storms' look that makes him a natural to play a man of mystery; and naturally, there's a burgeoning love story between Gabriel and Lily, benefitting from a raw and honest performance by area newcomer Ray. The performance from 11-year-old Lenamon (who was an understudy for Scout in the Dallas Theater Center's To Kill a Mockingbird) shows she's wise beyond her years.
The subplot that keeps the fires burning is the relationship between Jeanne and Von Pfunz. Schultes might be slightly too young for the part, but with her measured speech and regal carriage, she could simply be well-preserved. Most importantly, it's obvious she'll do anything for those she loves. Her interplay with a commanding but love-struck Corolla is alternately playful and heartbreaking, at times frightening.
Nothing in the plot offers any new insight into wartime interpersonal politics and the capacity for human kindness, but those well-trod themes are marvelously explored. With a tight ensemble and with direction that moves with quiet musicality, Stage West's Gabriel is a little heaven-sent gift.