note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
Lately, the same complaint surfaces. Area theater companies are embracing British plays and farces increasingly and feel compelled to simulate various British dialects. While their efforts are laudable, the results oftentimes aren’t. Local actors are effecting accents that Americans (or “Yanks” as the Brits call us), aren’t accustomed to hearing. That same problem mars Wellesley College Summer Theatre’s production of Cecil Philip Taylor’s World War II multi-award winning play, “And A Nightingale Sang,” which he wrote in 1977. The title is based on 1940s popular song, “And a Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”
Although some actors are outstanding, their accents are thick and cadence rushed, so theatergoers can’t distinguish the dialogue at times in this bittersweet comedy.
Also, characters’ idiosyncrasies and personal expressions, such as drinking tea on all occasions - even during air raids - or spouting “Are ye daft, man?” are boringly repetitive. Although Artistic Director-Director Nora Hussey usually does a splendid job, she overlooked these nuances.
The play traces an eccentric, middle-class family from Newcastle-on-Tyne during the six-year war, from its beginning to VE Day, but the time sequence and timing are obscured. The first act had interesting moments, but it dragged. During intermission last Sunday afternoon, some folks left. What a shame, given the second act gains momentum.
This production offers such promise beforehand, too. Jazzy, nostalgic songs welcome theatergoers into the small Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, where the audience surrounds the stage on three sides. Set designer David Towlun’s colorful, political scrim with images of Winston Churchill, villainous Nazi soldiers, their rings and political slogans, blanket the back wall. A few stage props represent several places, including the Stott family home interior, their bomb shelter with gas masks for all, an apartment, hotel, dance hall, train station, and other outdoor sites.
As the action shifts, Ken Loewit’s careful lighting and George Cooke’s sound effects transport the audience through dramatic siren-screaming air raids and bomb drops, with whistling missiles and, yes, teakettles. The British indifference to enemy invasion, panic,air strikes, and potential Hitler takeover is apparent as they carry on life and business as usual, side-stepping rubble and destruction.
Nancy Stevenson’s vintage costumes nicely define each character’s personality. Narrator Helen, (nicely portrayed by Wellesley senior Margaret Dunn), a self-defined “cripple,” dresses plainly. One of her oxford-style shoes is built up and her hemlines are uneven, because one leg is shorter than the other. Helen’s flighty, younger sister, Joyce, (Ashley Gramolini) wears flowery frocks, her hair carefully coiffed to enhance her pretty features.
Their fanatically religious Catholic mam, Peggy, (the fabulous Lisa Foley) is conservatively garbed, typically like most 1940s matrons, while Peggy’s eccentric 68-year-old dad, Andie, (veteran crowd-pleaser John Davin), shuffles between his daughters’ homes, but is as jaunty as his cap. Early on, Andie sadly totes around a large sack, with his dead dog inside. Later, a picnic-type basket holds his new cat. Declaring his preference for pets over people, Andie says, “Y’know, people are not human beings.” Young soldiers Norman from Glasgow (Will Bouvier) and local bloke Eric (Will Keary) look fine, indeed, in their vintage Army uniforms. Eric is crazy about Joyce and bought her an engagement ring from a “tart” in a pub, but Joyce isn’t sure she wants Eric.
Norman seems sincerely smitten with self-effacing Helen,who’s amazed.“If I walked down Shields Road...naked... no man would look at me twice,” she says.
Helen seems to be the only stable, dependable one. Mam Peggy constantly prays to her Virgin Mother statue, and envisions a miracle. Meanwhile, George, (Derek Stone Nelson), Peggy’s husband and the girls‘ dad who’s a shop steward, passes the time playing the piano and singing, while the war escalates. He’s later motivated into serving as an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden-turned communist.
The most moving scene is when Norman convinces Helen to go dancing her first time. Despite her insistence that she can’t dance because she’s “crippled,” Norman tenderly teaches her, and the two triumphantly twirl around the stage.
The war ends. There’s jubilation in the streets, but not for everyone. And the reason is unexpected.
BOX INFO: Two-act play, written by C.P. Taylor,appearing through June 24 in the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, Alumnae Hall at Wellesley College: Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20; seniors, students, $10. Call the Box Office at 781-283-2434.