The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is currently presenting, outdoors at Saint Elizabeth University in Morristown, “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself),” a play about an Englishman with a love of adventure and a wild imagination. It is simultaneously presenting, indoors at Drew University in Madison, “And a Nightingale Sang …,” which is about, more or less, the opposite: an English family whose daily lives generate all the drama they can bear.
C.P. Taylor’s earthy 1977 comedy, whose title was inspired by the frequently recorded song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” is about a working class family living in a modest, cramped house in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, during World War II. It starts with its central character and narrator, Helen (Monette Magrath), remembering a day when “we were too busy to notice the war.”
You see, on this particular day, Helen’s father George (John Little) was playing the piano and singing; and her mother Peggy (Marion Adler) was working herself up into a tizzy about what was going on at a church, where the priest had had some sort of a breakdown and “could be losing God and Christ,” Peggy says. “Tell him to put an advert in the Chronicle,” George wisecracks.
Helen’s sister Joyce (Sarah Deaver) is expecting to be proposed to by her boyfriend Eric (Christian Frost), a soldier, but is having doubts that she wants to marry him, and wants everyone to weigh in — but no one really wants to do that, perhaps because they have doubts, too. And Helen and Joyce’s grandfather Andie (Sam Tsoutsouvas) is planning a funeral for his fondly remembered racing dog Jackie (“he was a trier … he raced his heart out”) and is disappointed that no one else seems to care.
Taylor’s play, directed by Bonnie J. Monte, depicts a sort of warm-but-quirky domestic chaos, with lots of love to go around but everyone lost in their own world, and the calm, unselfish Helen at the center of it all, helping everyone to sort out their own crises.
She is nicknamed “Cripple” by her family, though she just has one leg that is shorter than the other, and walks a bit awkwardly. She is unmarried, and resigned to staying that way — until, that is, Eric’s soldier friend Norman (Benjamin Eakeley) takes an interest in her, and she has her first taste of romance. (When she declares “I could do without bloody men,” early on, you just know she’s going to reconsider that at some point in the play).
Complications also ensue from the war itself. Eric and Norman come and go, visiting when not going off “to fight old Adolf,” as Eric puts it. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne is bombed, and the family hides out in the basement (in the play’s most absurd and funniest moment, a shrill, loud boiling kettle is mistaken for an air raid siren). And George becomes an air raid warden, and suffers a minor injury in the line of duty.
Ultimately, Eric and Norman reveal that they may not be the knights in shining armor that Joyce and Helen yearn for. George undergoes an unlikely political conversion to Communism. Joyce suspects she may be pregnant. And the eccentric Andie makes all kinds of trouble when he’s not spouting words of wisdom, or nonsense, or both.
A bomb, he says, would be the “best way (to die), when you think about it. Anyway, what is living? Just working out some way of passing the time in between eating and shitting and sleeping.”
But Helen is the heart and soul of the play, and Magrath is absolutely luminous in the role (which is very similar to the role she played in STNJ’s “The Rainmaker,” in 2019). And her bittersweet final speech, which coincides with the end of the war, contradicts Andie’s “passing the time” philosophy.
Yes, in a certain sense, she has just tried to muddle through the war, and deal with the roadblocks that life has thrown in her way, the best she can. But she has grown, and emerged from it all a better person. It may not compare to vanquishing old Adolf, but it’s a significant victory of its own.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey will present “And a Nightingale Sang …” at the F.M. Kirby Theatre at Drew University in Madison through July 30; visit shakespearenj.org.
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