It's hard for Americans to imagine the Blitz. The German bombardment of Britain was so long, so widespread, so routinely surreal, that the era shaped its own culture. Here was the British Empire, once the largest in history, nibbling rations in bomb shelters.
And because the Blitz is so hazy, And a Nightingale Sang, by Cecil P. Taylor, is a palatable primer. History buffs will enjoy this thoughtful Little Lake Theatre production, if only for its vintage topic. Taylor's script is quirky, loudmouthed and digestibly sad. Like the magnificent film Hope and Glory, Nightingale explores civilian life between air-raid sirens — through the living room of a single ridiculous family.
To say much about Nightingale's story would ruin its twists, without which the play is pretty plain. The Stotts are a working-class family in Newcastle-on-Tyne; they're awkwardly Catholic, and they bicker about everything. Nightingale's narrator is a submissive daughter named Helen, who makes tea, obeys her Mam and goes to confession. Until she doesn't.
This production is slow and repetitive, and if the dialogue were spoken twice as fast, the run-time would be appropriately halved. There are exceptional moments, such as when the family is cramped in a shelter, waiting for the bombs to drop, and they still argue about Grandpa's cat. Kate Neubert-Lechner has the usual Little Lake challenge of directing an ensemble in the round, and the results are mixed.
But the standout is Jena Oberg as Helen, and her performance is worth admission. She masters the difficult north-English dialect, she speaks with pace and urgency, and she emotes throughout, even when she has no lines. She basically carries the show; when she's absent, everything drags.
Oberg's closest equal is Bill Bennett as Andie, Helen's eccentric grandfather. What's so refreshing about Andie is his nihilism. His credo is that the war is endless, we're all going to die, and the world will forget us anyway. Why all the fuss? Bennett seems to relish his existential tirades, which always get their laughs.
Limitations aside, kudos to Little Lake for its unusual pick. With Talking Pictures and The 39 Steps coming up, Nightingale kicks off a very hopeful season.