By Karen Isaacs
And a Nightingale Sang is one of those plays that is difficult to categorize. While it is getting a beautifully acted and directed production at Westport Country Playhouse through June 27, one ends up wondering. Is it a “kitchen sink” drama? A memory play? A melodrama? Or just soap opera?
I’ll vote for either of the first two though certainly it does have elements of both melodrama and soap opera.
The C. P. Taylor play — which incidentally got its American premier at Hartford Stage in 1983 — tells the story of a working class family in Newcastle, England during World War II.
The title references the popular song of the period, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” which tells of falling in love though the wartime romance lasted only a brief time.
In the play, we meet Helen Scott, the older daughter who tells us the story of their war time experiences. Helen is single, has a limp and feels unattractive and undesirable. As the play opens, war is looming and her younger sister Joyce is dithering whether to accept the proposal of Eric, a young soldier. George the father is blue collar worker who endlessly plays popular tunes on the piano. Peggy is the Mom of the family; devout to the Catholic church with numerous premonitions. Peggy’s father, Andie also lives with them part-time, expressing his rather fatalistic point of view.
During this first scene, the family experiences their very first air raid warning; the men in the group respond humorously — Eric attempts to take charge but George is frantically looking for the booklet of instructions and Andie is proclaiming that it doesn’t matter if they die.
During the course of the play — which covers the time until V-E Day, a variety of things occur to shake up the family. Joyce and Eric marry but they are able to spend little time together since he is posted at a base and only gets the occasional leave. During one of those, he introduces Norman to the family and soon Norman and Helen are in love. We see the strains in Joyce and Eric’s marriage — on his first leave, she can barely touch him — and we see Norman and Helen develop a real relationship. Helen begins to blossom becoming more confident. We also see the strains on the older generation — Mom is made increasingly nervous by the constant raids and the tensions between Joyce and her husband. Andie continues his fatalistic viewpoint and when he becomes tired of being shuttled between his two daughters, strikes out on his own. George not only becomes a shop steward but a Communist, to Mom’s horror.
The ending is bittersweet but I will not reveal it here. Let us just say that only one of the two young couples ends happily.
Taylor has some surprising elements in the play for those of us not intimately familiar with Britain during the war. First, neither of the two soldiers are sent overseas. Each works on bases that allow for visits home and leave. Second, while there is some talk of rations there is little sense of deprivation. The family does not talk of being cold, of not having enough food, etc. Life seems relatively normal. There is also little talk of the blitz and bomb damage; perhaps Newcastle – in northeast England – was not as badly damaged though it was an industrial center.
What makes this production special is the fine acting and direction by David Kennedy. In addition, Fitz Patton gives us realistic sounds of air raid warnings and the whizz of the potential bombs. The scenic design by Kristen Robinson is flexible– the one setting is easily adapted to the park bench, various parts of the house and other locations. Michael Krass gives us typical 1940s costumes though I would have though the clothes would have been more threadbare by the end of the war due to the terrible shortages. Even the King complained about worn out clothing.
So let us turn to the highlight of this production — the acting. Brenda Meaney is terrific as the sensible daughter Helen, who also serves to narrate the play. She not only captures the slight limp due to Helen having one leg shorter than the other, but she also captures her loneliness and feeling “different”. She is the one who mediates between the other family members. We see her blossom as the play goes on.
But the other cast members are also excellent, each capturing their “type” but also adding depth to the characterizations. Jenny Leona as Joyce is more than just a flighty girl who always gets what she thinks she wants. Deirdre Madigan is the mother with the devotion to the Catholic church and the priests. She shows us how the anxieties of the bombings have worn on her already frayed nerves. Sean Cullen is a father somewhat removed from the family – more interested in learning his pop songs — the selections are terrific — and his new enthusiasm for Communism — then the goings on in the family. Richard Kline is also very good as the grandfather, Andie. Probably the least developed roles are those of the two soldiers: Joyce’s Eric played by John Skelley and Helen’s Norman played by John Matthew Greer. Each do a fine job but somehow we wish we could see behind the surface more with each of them.
Your reaction to And a Nightingale Sang may depend on how you feel about “slice of life” plays — not a lot of big things happen, and the pace can be slower. What you are experiencing is seeing a family’s ordinary life in a difficult time. For me, that was than enough when combined with the fine acting and directing.
And a Nightingale Sang is at Westport Country Playhouse 25 Powers Court, through June 27. For tickets visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call 888-927-7529.