"And a Nightingale Sang . . .," the opening production of the New Arts Theatre's second season, follows a working-class British family through World War II, looking at its fears and deprivations and the way life continues in an ordinary way even while bombs are falling.
Ordinary life continues, and yet is forever altered, as C.P. Taylor's gentle little play suggests. Choices are made, in the shadow of imminent destruction, that shake the mores and morals of peacetime, and the expectations of simple people are subtly changed in ways they may not even recognize.
The production, directed by artistic director Camilla David, survives largely on the strength of Nancy Robinette, whose performance as the sweet, shy older daughter galvanizes the play.
She plays Helen, a plain, awkward creature with a limp; she approaches spinsterhood with quiet resignation.
Her uncomplicated integrity makes her the backbone of her family, the decision-maker for her flighty younger sister, the dinner-maker in place of her religion-addicted mother, who is always dashing off to mass, and the homemaker for her dotty grandfather.
Her father, a miner with leftist yearnings, literally tunes out his family by playing music-hall ditties on the piano, banging away relentlessly to the annoyance of his kin (and -- thanks to the limited musical abilities of actor Bill Seely -- the audience.)
Younger sister Joyce makes a wartime match with Eric, feeling she should give herself to him before he goes off to die. He doesn't, and even when they reunite after a long separation, it's clear that this marriage is going to develop into one of those misbegotten unions that can poison an entire family with its tension.
A handsome young soldier takes a fancy to Helen, and love touches her for the first time. But he is already married, and when she decides to live with him out of wedlock despite her parents' outrage, the resulting battle seems to foreshadow the generational conflicts of the 1960s.
Helen's love is doomed, but when the time finally comes, her sad yet wise acceptance of heartbreak is genuinely touching.
This sort of emotion, however, is missing in the rest of the cast, most of whom seem slightly adrift. Taylor shifts focus from one set of characters to another, leaving those out of the spotlight to occupy themselves somehow.
Neither the actors nor director David has figured out how to deal gracefully and appropriately with these transitions. Neither parental part is particularly well written -- the father appearing especially one-dimensional -- but then Seely and Nancy Grosshans, who plays the mother, do little to put flesh on what few bones playwright Taylor provides.
Grosshans has fashioned a genuinely annoying character, all fuss and hysteria, who makes you want to ram the next cup of tea she mentions down her throat.
Cecilia Cook manages the superficiality of the younger sister nicely, but the character is such a moral nonentity it's hard to feel much interest in her. Grover Gardner is extremely debonair as Helen's lover, but again has difficulty developing the depth of inner conflict this duplicitous lover must feel.
If he doesn't feel it, then he is merely a shallow cad, and much less compelling. Richard Mancini is far too young for the grandfather, and resorts to creakiness in lieu of age. T.J. Edwards does well as the callow soldier husband.
David seems to have concentrated on the acting values at the occasional expense of mechanics; actors are sometimes arrayed awkwardly in a straight line across the stage or, in at least one instance, sit torpidly at a moment of high emotion.
At times the proceedings seem more like a British sitcom than a serious play, and the fault lies somewhere between the playwright and the production. David's wisest move was casting Robinette, who communicates with the audience in a direct and touching way, her gawkiness made graceful by the genuineness of the performance.