C.P. Taylor’s “And a Nightingale Sang . . . ,” getting its Orange County premiere as the Grove Theatre Company opens its 10th season, is more than anything else about getting by under difficult circumstances.
Air raid sirens go off, gas masks are pulled from the pantry closet, doughboys in khaki enter lives, but the real impact of the war always seems only tangential. The struggle with Hitler, like the historic Churchill speeches that join scenes, is merely a moody backdrop for the romantic tale Taylor decides to tell.
Nothing wrong with that. Not every wartime story requires the flash of enemy fire or soldiers returning home in wheelchairs to have substance and soul. But “Nightingale,” especially under David Herman’s winsome direction, has a slight quality. Mum’s (Kay Berlet’s) palpitations in the bomb shelter, Da’s (Gary Bell’s) daft tension-easing piano recitals and youngest daughter Joyce’s (Katharine Mills’) worries about her soldier husband are satisfyingly human moments, but they don’t always add up to more than just moments.
Still, there is much to admire in Taylor’s writing (and Herman’s approach) concerning Helen (Kathy Bell Denton) as she finds an unexpected bounty (and unexpected heartache) resulting from the war. Taylor brings us into the life of the spinsterish Helen, the oldest daughter who has given up on finding love but does so when the gentle, weak Norman (Lawrence Levy) earnestly woos her during his weekend furloughs.
Denton plays Helen with backbone but also an affecting self-effacement and sensitivity. You want to root for her. And, at least early on, you want to root for Levy’s Norman, too. His apparent goodness appears to make them the ideal match.
It is anger you feel when he turns out to be something more than what he let on. Hating him isn’t the next step, though--Levy lets us know from the start that Norman is not the strongest man; he is liable to make mistakes.
Since “Nightingale” depends more on its colorful characters than its thin plotting to give pleasure, the cast has the usual responsibilities, and then some. If we aren’t intrigued by all the nervous self-absorption going on from corner to corner of Christa Bartels’ homey set, then forget it.
Bell keeps the nincompoopish father from getting too overbearing and gives him a shade of the misunderstood poet. As the fatalist grandfather, Jack Byron has some of Taylor’s wittiest lines, and he knows what to do with them.
There is more than one romance here. Joyce and Eric (Bud Leslie) find love in a pretty roundabout way, by getting married just as he goes to the war but not finding an emotional connection until armistice.
Nice scenes. Personal little moments, among many in “And a Nightingale Sang.” Are they enough? Not really, but on their own, they can be charming. Especially if you are in a sentimental mood.
‘AND A NIGHTINGALE SANG . . ‘
A Grove Theatre Company production of C.P. Taylor’s play. Directed by David Herman. With Kathy Bell Denton, Gary Bell, Jack Byron, Katharine Mills, Kay Berlet, Bud Leslie and Lawrence Levy. Set by Christa Bartels. Lighting by Kevin Cook. Choreography by Cyrus Parker. Costumes by Karen J. Weller. Sound and makeup by Gary Christensen. Plays Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. through Nov. 5 at the Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Tickets: $13-$17. (714) 636-7213.