"And a Nightingale Sang" at Westport Country Playhouse
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
For those who are old enough to remember WWII, this play is an authentic representation of what life was like, particularly in Newcastle England, during the 1940’s. C.P. Taylor, a Scotsman who was born in1929, and lived his last 20 years in Newcastle, was probably too young to be drafted then, nevertheless, his “And a Nightingale Sang,” currently at Westport Country Playhouse, captures the spirit of the ordinary people of this northern, coal mining area who survived this devastating war.
For those who weren’t born yet, here in America, we had the same air raid drills, food rationing and other inconveniences due to WWII, but we suffered very little compared to England. Sitting in our comfortable living rooms, we heard of the indiscriminate German bombing raids on the radio, read the newspapers, and saw the destruction of cities via movie newsreels. However, our men were also risking their lives fighting Hitler and the Japanese. The factories were rolling out planes, ships, tanks and other war supplies day and night, and the home front’s unified spirit to win this war was as strong as it was in England. Nothing like this patriotism called “The War Effort” was ever witnessed by the generations of Americans that followed. After WWII, our half-hearted, foreign wars that were fought “,,,in our interest,” dragged on for years, and became dispirited efforts. For this reason alone, “And a Nightingale Sang” at Westport Country Playhouse is a vivid, human experience for today’s audiences.
In describing the plot, the ancient English saying, “...it’s like carrying coals to Newcastle” comes to mind -- which means, if there is a plot it’s rather “pointless.” If the saying puzzles you, it came about because Newcastle was known to have enough coal of its own. Likewise, there is nothing unusual about the plot except the period it is set in. It’s like an “All in the Family” sit-com. There are some tender moments, some wise and funny observances, two romances, plus a dead dog that needs to be buried. No other significant events take place, and like the ongoing serial, “Love of Life,” nothing is earth shattering. The story continues on and on and the family remains more or less as before.
It is the entire cast, under the direction of David Kennedy, that is most remarkable. Brenda Meaney is the resigned, spinster daughter, Helen. Her skilled acting smoothly transitions from narrator to actress. She also plays the advisor to her younger, insecure sister, Joyce (Jenny Leona). John Skelley plays Joyce’s soldier husband, and together, the couple makes a great, dancing pair. Handsome soldier Norman (Matthew Greer) is attracted to Helen but he holds a secret. The very religious, Catholic mother, Deirdre Madigan, frowns on this out-of-wedlock relationship with good reason. The boisterous, piano-playing father, later turned Communist, is Sean Cullen. Music is his way of keeping up morale, and his rich voice singing WWII British and American popular songs adds a special touch. Richard Kline is the down to earth, WWI grandpa who nurtures animals and steals the show with his shocking, outlandish remarks. You can almost hear the playwright speaking cynically here.
The scenery is a puzzle. The brick wall background looks as if the family is living in an abandoned factory. It’s difficult to know where the living spaces and the indoor and outdoor site lines are. We have one, single bed against the center of the brick wall and an adjoining kitchen area. Either we should accept that everyone takes turns sleeping in one bed, or, we have to assume there are other bedrooms in the unit for various family members -- but no doors lead to them. All entrances and exits are from the wings. When the victory lights are hung on the clothesline, we are not sure if the line is indoors or in the yard. We are also wondering what the yellow structure behind and above the brick wall represents? The bombing sounds and flashing lights add tense realism to the scene and except for Helen’s uneven hemline, the women’s period clothing was fine.
While I had trouble hearing all the words and getting used to the dialect, Elizabeth Smith should be complimented for a very difficult task. I believe I detected a combination of Irish, Scottish, and maybe a bit of Welsh -- typical dialects of the coal miners who settled in this area of England.
You should see “And a Nightingale Sang” for its good acting and historic value.
Plays to June 27. Tickets: 203-227-4177
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre,” June/2015