Nazi occupation tested the moral integrity of East Europeans during the Holocaust, and so it went for the Channel Islands. Such moments of truth about saving Jews from the Germans or handing them over surely challenged islanders from 1943 to 1945 in the only part of the British Isles taken over by the Third Reich.
Moral tests of this order join with strong family concerns in English playwright Moira Buffini’s largely heavenly 1997 melodrama “Gabriel,” now in an emotionally soaring New England premiere at the Stoneham Theatre.
Set in 1943 on Germany-occupied Guernsey Island, “Gabriel” begins with young daughter Estelle Becquet creating a ‘‘square of power’’ with chalk by candlelight and praying that the enemy are killed. The Becquets live in a spare house – kudos to designer Matthew Lazure for a well-detailed two-level set – since German soldiers took over their longstanding home.
In the play’s back story, pragmatic widowed mother Jeanne Becquet had been having an affair with a Nazi soldier, Major Von Pfunz, to help keep her family out of trouble. That looming fear includes the possible registration and deportation of Jeanne’s Jewish daughter-in-law, Lily, married to her son who’s presumed dead in action.
Complicating the situation for everyone is Lily’s discovery of an injured man on the beach, naked and with no identification. Is this seeming amnesiac a patriotic British pilot despite no parachute or uniform? Could he be a Nazi himself? Adding to the mystery is his fluency in German as well as English.
Lily begins to fall in love with him. Jeanne is struck by his resemblance to her son Myles, who had served in the Royal Air Force. Estelle believes he is an angel and names him “Gabriel,” hence the play’s title.
Housekeeper Mrs. Lake, who has been selling food and liquor on the black market, means to find out as much about Gabriel as she can. Von Pfunz is impressed by his ability to converse in German but remains uncertain about his identity.
Once Lake’s fact-finding produces results, Buffini’s disarming plotting convincingly brings together developments involving Gabriel’s fortunes as well as those of the family. Will Estelle’s prayers be answered, and what will happen to her angel? Will Lily be spared being sent to a concentration camp? Will Jeanne be able to keep her family together?
“Gabriel” may depend upon some melodramatic moments in the later going, but Buffini’s insights about both the power of individual choices and family solidarity are ultimately quite compelling.
Under artistic director Weylin Symes’ solid guidance, a strong cast makes the play’s lessons about love, caring, and human understanding fully absorbing. Alexander Molina has all of Gabriel’s charismatic appeal.
Marissa Simeqi is a true find as innocent but bravely cocky Estelle. Josephine Moshiri Elwood captures Lily’s big heart as she cares for Gabriel and her vulnerability in the face of Nazism. Thomas Derrah catches Von Pfunz’s curious moments of playfulness with Jeanne but also fully expresses his venomous commitment to the goals of the Third Reich. Georgia Lyman is a standout as tenacious matriarch Jeanne, pragmatic yet unflinchingly intrepid in her defense of family.
“Gabriel,” Stoneham Theatre, through May 14. 781-279-2200, stonehamtheatre.com.
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Jewish talent was honored at the 21st annual Independent Reviewers of New England Awards, held at the Holiday Inn Boston-Brookline.
Choreographer Ilyse Robbins, music director Matthew Stern, and set designer Eric Levenson were cited for SpeakEasy Stage’s brilliant Hub premiere of “Scottsboro Boys,” the last work of legendary Jewish collaborators John Kander (composer) and the late Fred Ebb (lyricist).
Playwright Israel Horovitz was honored for best new play-small stage for his drama, ‘‘Man in Snow,” performed by the Gloucester Stage Company.
Shoshana Bean won musical best actress-large stage IRNE for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the North Shore Music Theatre revival of “Funny Girl.”
Abby Goldfarb took musical supporting actress-small stage honors for playing Tzeitel in the New Repertory Theatre revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Megan Sandberg-Zakian won the director-midsize stage prize for her work on the IRNE award-winning Underground Railway production of “The Convert.”
Charles Peltz was named best music director-large stage for his work on the IRNE award-winning Fiddlehead Theatre revival of the Jerome Kern classic, “Show Boat.”