Curtain Calls: A Living Portrait, by George!

Opening admission: Before I set out to review â??Georgie,â? I had never heard of George Rose. Thatâ??s not too shameful, as he died in 1988, and I didnâ??t start wearing theatre goggles until the early â??90s. Now Iâ??ll never forget him, all because of Ed Dixon.

As in every single-player performance, it takes a special kind of actor to carry a show by himself for 90 minutes without tiring the audience or showing signs of wear. Such an actor is Mr. Dixon, who has a block-long string of credits to his name as well as multiple Drama Desk Award nominations and a Helen Hays Award of his own. In â??Georgie,â? he sets out to present a biographical sketch of his former friend and mentor in a script that arcs from anecdote and humor to a cold plunge into the darkness and out again.

But unlike such platforms of virtuosity as â??I Am My Own Wifeâ? and â??Buyer and Cellar,â? â??Georgieâ? doesnâ??t just ask that multiple people be invoked through shifts in voices and mannerisms. It requires the performer to create other people through the voice of George Rose â?? a distinct but very fine difference. This material is not beyond the skill of Dixon, however. He wrote it. Aspiring actors should see this show, if for no other reason, to study a master at work.

Ed Dixon first met George Rose as a young actor when Rose was already a renowned character actor in New York and London. Captivated by the singular magic that Rose brought to his performances, Dixon began watching from the wings at every opportunity, studying from the master, eventually developing a friendship that lasted until Roseâ??s death. Now, some 28 years later, it may be that the writing and performing of â??Georgieâ? is not just an artistic endeavor, but a vehicle for catharsis.

The intimate set designed by Eric Schaeffer (who also directed) takes us backstage with fly ropes and scratched wooden floor, a pile of books and a single wingback chair facing the audience.

An outer frame extends only halfway around the stage with lights, some of them bright, some faltering, some burnt out. Lighting by Chris Lee, through subtle shifts, takes us from present narration to past memory.

In this venue, Mr. Dixon, recounting the highlights of his life with Rose, dips facilely in and out of suggested characterizations (Noel Coward, Richard Burton, Kathryn Hepburn, etc.) to punctuate incidental points, and allows a complex portrait of his mentor to emerge. His freely given opinions on everything from acting to the lives of his fellow actors give it that delicious element which only an afternoon of gossip with a good friend can achieve. That a shocking dark side to Rose must be revealed before itâ??s over is a necessary part of its inherent honesty.

Through Dixon, we also come to admire Roseâ??s unique stage gifts. His replication of Rose in his show-stopping performance of â??A Modern Major Generalâ? from â??The Pirates of Penzanceâ? is actually astonishing when compared to the original. For at least an hour, there is that element of glowing admiration as Dixon recounts his conversations, shifting easily back and forth between himself and Rose. He makes us laugh.

We believe that weâ??re there, with him, in this long blooming friendship. That Dixon bears a very passable resemblance to Rose in actuality is just another point to the good.

It is when he gets to know more about Rose than he ever wanted to know that things start to devolve. If it were only the discovery that your hero has feet of clay, then we could leave it with a shrug and a worldly remark about â??life.â? But this, which I wonâ??t divulge here, is more than that, and the turmoil it creates in Dixon is tragic.

The beauty of â??Georgieâ? is not just in a script that is sensitive to the strata which occur in any honest portrait of another person; it also lies in Dixonâ??s three-dimensional precision and a clearly communicated sense of integrity in his search for truth. By the end, I am left with the conviction that â??Georgieâ? as a work of art was not just an act of love, but an act of forgiveness.

Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher. She may be reached at maggiecatbird@aol.com

If you go
What: The world premiere of: â??Georgie: My Adventures With George Roseâ? Written and performed by Ed Dixon
Where: Signature Theatre (in the Ark)
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Va.
Call: 703-820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
Playing through Feb. 7