The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is entertaining audiences outdoors with the adventure comedy Shipwrecked! at St. Elizabeth’s University. Meanwhile, at their indoor home on the Drew University campus, they present C.P. Taylor’s And a Nightingale Sang… Set during World War II, the play presents vignettes in the life of a British family showing how the events of the war years affected ordinary life.
The story is narrated by the Stott family’s eldest daughter, Helen (Monette Magrath). She introduces the rest of the family: father George (John Little), who spends his spare time singing and playing the piano; high-strung mother Peggy (Marion Adler), taking refuge in her staunch Catholicism; younger sister Joyce (Sarah Deaver), unable to make even the simplest decisions, much less deciding whether or not to marry her soldier boyfriend Eric (Christian Frost); and Peggy’s father Andie (Sam Tsoutsouvas), a WWI veteran shuttling between his two grown daughters’ homes. Into this mix comes Norman (Benjamin Bakeley), Eric’s army buddy, who takes an instant shine to Helen.
The Stott family is, at times, difficult to take; nobody listens to anyone else, and since no two people are talking about the same subject, family conversations become a communications nightmare. And as the years pass from September 1939 to May 1945, the family members change and adapt as best they can to the pressures of life in wartime.
Taylor’s script focuses on Helen’s journey of self-discovery and empowerment, taking full advantage of familiar tropes of wartime romance. Helen starts out the play believing that she is unlovable — thinking herself more plain than her sister and over-sensitive about her barely-noticeable limp — and resigned to being the common sense center of her fantastical family.
When romance in the form of Norman comes into her life, she downplays his advances to shield herself from expected disappointment. Yet to see Magrath’s face change as it slowly dawns on Helen that she is in fact lovely and love-worthy is subtle and touching artistry. Helen learns that making her own happiness independent of her family is important and that being unashamedly true to her feelings carries its own imperatives and weight.
The set, designed by Brittany Vasta with lighting by Matthew E. Adelson and sound by Drew Sensue-Weinstein, depicts the Stott’s home — living room, kitchen, and Joyce’s upstairs bedroom — plus a basement shelter that doubles as an outdoor park bench for some scenes. While filling the Kirby Theatre stage, the impression is that of a slightly cramped home. This works to the advantage of the play’s several scenes of slapstick physical comedy in the house, especially a wildly comic scene during the family’s first experience with an air raid alert.
This is not a perfect production. At the performance I attended, I got the feeling that the actors were not yet entirely comfortable working as a family unit. I also thought there were odd blocking choices in some scenes where Helen was narrating the story. Other than that, And a Nightingale Sang… is an engaging play.
While it may not be a warm fuzzy blanket of a romance, it is a nostalgic and, at times touching look at an ordinary family confronting their own problems while also dealing with the stresses of wartime. If this sounds like the type of show you would appreciate, I recommend a trip to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey to see And a Nightingale Sang….
And a Nightingale Sang… is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through July 30, 2023. For more information or to order tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit shakespearenj.org.