GLOUCESTER — Virtually every movement Lindsay Crouse makes and every word she utters is charged with theatricality in the Gloucester Stage Company production of “Lettice and Lovage.’’
That’s because to Lettice Douffet, the eccentric tour guide incisively portrayed by Crouse in Peter Shaffer’s 1987 comedy, the world is indeed a stage.
Lettice is a rebel of sorts, at war with what she calls “the mere,’’ determined not to confine herself to “Mere People. Mere Events.’’ Indeed, when it comes to that chronicle of people and events we call history, Lettice considers it just a rough draft. Surely she can improve upon those dry and dusty accounts.
So she does, improvising freely as she leads visitors on tours of a drab British mansion called, wonderfully, Fustian House. In Lettice’s elaborately inventive retelling, an anecdote about the time Queen Elizabeth I tripped on the mansion stairs becomes the stuff of high drama — nay, virtually a Michael Bay action movie. The guide’s embellishments soon land her in hot water with Charlotte Schoen (Marya Lowry), an official at the historic preservation trust responsible for Fustian House, who denounces what she calls Lettice’s “gross departures from fact and truth.’’
That’s far from the final interaction, however, between Lettice and Charlotte, called Lotte. Playwright Shaffer, best-known for the dramatic intensity of “Amadeus’’ and “Equus,’’ takes these two quirky characters in unexpected directions (including accusations against Lettice of a bizarre crime). By the end of “Lettice and Lovage’’ we’ve come to share his clear affection for the duo.
There are hidden dimensions to both women. Might Lettice’s imperious demeanor actually be a mask, worn by a woman living in reduced circumstances? Might Lotte’s show of bureaucratic certitude and insistence on strict fidelity to received versions of the past reflect a deep anxiety about an ever-changing present?
Lotte is the more reactive role, but there’s a fullness to the portrait sketched by Lowry, a fine actress who also delivered a layered performance last summer in a very different examination of stifled lives, Enda Walsh’s “The New Electric Ballroom.’’
In its unassuming, idiosyncratic way, “Lettice and Lovage’’ touches on questions about the way we think of history, that mammoth chronicle of humanity’s striving. How much of it is factual and how much is essentially an agreed-upon fiction? How much of what we accept as historical truth are wish-fulfillment fantasies or stories that are, to use the old newspaper joke, too good to check?
Since she began performing at Gloucester Stage Company almost a decade ago with a deeply textured portrayal of Emily Dickinson in William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst,’’ Crouse has chosen her projects and her collaborators wisely at the small but potent theater. “Lettice and Lovage’’ reunites her with director Benny Sato Ambush, who helmed a Crouse-starring production of Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy’’ in 2013.
It’s a fruitful partnership. Ambush dexterously handles the shifting tones of “Lettice and Lovage’’ as the action plays out on Jon Savage’s versatile set, and Crouse delivers an artfully nuanced performance in a role Shaffer originally wrote for the larger-than-life Maggie Smith.
While capturing the sense of wonder and spirit of adventure that animate Lettice, along with her florid wit and her need to transcend the mundane, Crouse also conveys just how precariously the tour guide is clinging to her dignity. We can see the traces of Lettice’s self-awareness in Crouse’s subtly expressive features. Amid the humor, it’s poignantly clear that Lettice can precisely measure the distance between her public persona and the reality of her life.
But who needs reality when you can spin a yarn and cast a spell the way Lettice does? She delivers a highly theatrical account of the events that led to her being charged with a crime to Mr. Bardolph, an attorney hired to defend her, portrayed by the very funny Mark Cohen, and when she seems about to cut short her account, the lawyer cries out involuntarily: “I have to hear the end of your story!’’ We know just how he feels.
LETTICE AND LOVAGE
Play by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, through June 11. Tickets: $28-$38, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.