If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
World War II Romance at Westport Playhouse
The sweetly nostalgic “And A Nightingale Sang” is sure to please many longing for a simpler time. C.P. Taylor’s warmly felt family drama is currently in revival at the Westport Country Playhouse where a fine acting company has unearthed many of its uncomplicated pleasures.
Set in Newcastle, England during World War II, “And A Nightingale Sang” is narrated by Helen (a sublime Brenda Meaney), eldest daughter of the Stott clan, an Irish Catholic family and part of the British working class that includes her sister Joyce (Jenny Leona) and parents Peggy (Deirdre Madigan) and George (Sean Cullen). Eccentric grandfather Andie (Richard Kline, stealing scenes with abandon) pops in and out of the household to espouse his fatalistic philosophy and two military suitors, Norman (Matthew Greer) and Eric (John Skelley), are on hand as romantic prospects for the Stott sisters.
Taylor’s drama is often reminiscent of the Kaufman/Hart classic “You Can’t Take It With You” with its warm humor and array of quirky characters all assembled under one roof. The play is nostalgic, romantic, familiar and just a tad dull especially for American audiences who may feel its climax yearned for an emotional pull that was lacking in the writing. The play contains few surprises and seems to coast, instead, on its cast of idiosyncratic types.
Still, the acting in Westport is worth savoring. Tall and regal, Meaney is most memorable as Helen, a lonely spinster who has resigned herself to her fate until the handsome Norman crosses her path. Madigan is both funny and touching as the devout Peggy, exasperated with her family situation as each new crisis rears its ugly head. Kline is also priceless as the animal loving grandfather who delivers all his punch lines with enviable comic timing. On opening night several cast members were still grasping for lines and cutting each other off, but the show is no doubt running much smoother now.
One huge caveat for this viewer, however, was Kristen Robinson’s puzzling scenic design. Rarely has a set been as distracting as it proved to be here. Some fine vintage furniture is arranged haphazardly across the Westport stage and it is all framed on three sides by a tall, ugly brick wall giving the appearance that the Stott family is living on the street. A tall flourishing tree planted upstage doesn’t help matters and even worse was the decision to string a line of laundry from one end of the stage to the other at the start of the second act. Director David Kennedy has a difficult time establishing the various locales the play demands given the design and a simpler, more representational approach may have been more appropriate. Matthew Richards’ lighting strives to focus at times but the period costume provided by Michael Krass hits all the right notes.
“And a Nightingale Sang” is, at the end, a pleasant visit and its talented cast should be rewarded by enthusiastic audiences. It continues at the Westport Playhouse through June 27. For further information and ticket reservations call the box office at: 203.337.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.