"And a Nightingale Sang" -- Westport Country Playhouse

by David A. Rosenberg

Meanwhile, back in Newcastle...What was it like for British families in the hinterlands during World War II? As happened all over the island, they were under constant fear of Nazi bombs, racing to shelters, not knowing if the house would still be standing once the raid was over. People still argued, however, fell in love, had children and tried to live with joy and a sense of help-thy-neighbor community.

That’s the premise of “And a Nightingale Sang,” C. P. Taylor’s affectionate, stolid salute to the civilians who endured the slings and arrows of war. Taylor’s 1977 work, tinged with wistfulness and brimming with admiration for the souls who endured the Battle of Britain, began as an oral history. At the Westport Country Playhouse, under the sturdy, inventive direction of David Kennedy, the evening never becomes either maudlin or sentimental, nor, for that matter, particularly moving.

The Stott family of Newcastle seems, at times, to be the obverse of the kooky bunch in “You Can’t Take It With You,” minus the fireworks. Peggy, the mum, is a religious zealot, while piano-playing George, the dad, can’t resist buying the latest sheet music, singing and playing to drown out the surrounding din.

They have two daughters, the pretty, flighty Joyce and the plain Helen who eventually blossoms when a soldier convinces her to let her hair down. That man has a devastating secret, in contrast to Joyce’s husband, also a soldier, but an open, irresponsible sort.

On the fringes is mum’s dad, Andie. Whether mourning his deceased dog, for whom he wants a proper Catholic funeral, or appropriating a gas mask for his latest acquisition, a cat, he is played with a delightful sense of the ridiculous by Richard Kline. Showing up unannounced to bed down at his daughter’s home, like a modern King Lear, zinging observations like “People are not human beings,” Kline is endearing.

Scenic designer Kristen Robinson’s unit set places the action simultaneously within and without the parents’ flat. The result is both awkward and confusing with an upstage brick wall juxtaposed against the theater’s real back wall. Further compounded by unimaginatively conflating the play’s various locations, such as using chairs to simulate a park bench, the setting might have worked better as an abstract design.

But what counts most are superb characterizations, beautifully rendered with pinpoint Geordie dialects, courtesy of consultant Elizabeth Smith. Brenda Meaney is wonderful as the handicapped Helen. As both character and narrator, her light touch ennobles what could be a cliché character into one pragmatic and filled with pitiless self-effacement.

Deirdre Madigan’s Peggy goes beyond simply becoming a religious scold, emphasizing mum’s loving concerns, while Sean Cullen, as dad, plays against obvious gruffness. As Joyce, Jenny Leona tempers her seeming superficiality with genuine anxiety. As the two soldiers, John Skelley as Joyce’s husband and Matthew Greer as Helen’s tender boyfriend are appealingly ingenuous.

Like other works about wars and conflicts, author Taylor and director Kennedy develop the humanity at the core of a terrifying period in world history. Avoiding sentimentality, they also eschew tears in favor of a piece very much framed by nostalgia for a world where we knew who our enemies were.

 


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