"Nightingale" Sings at Everyman

Last Friday night marked the opening of C.P Taylor's WWII comedy/drama And a Nightingale Sang at Everyman Theatre.  Truth be told, every play this season at Everyman has been of the utmost quality (Opus and School for Scandal come readily to mind), but this production may be the best thing I've seen there in years.  Forgive me, please, if I repeat adjectives or sound like a thesaurus.  There are only so many synonyms for "excellent."

And last Friday night, a star was born in Baltimore.  No, make that an entire constellation!  The new star's name is Beth Hylton, and that constellation is made up of seven stars, one for each member of this flawless ensemble of actors.  Seen earlier this season at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival in Desdemona, nothing Miss Hylton did there prepared me for the tour de force performance she gives in this charming, intelligent, witty and bittersweet memory play.  In it, she plays Helen, the eldest daughter of a British family and she narrates.  Helen has a limp, but she generally doesn't let it get her down – she has a remarkably optimistic outlook on life, having long ago come to peace with her limitations, resigned to the fact that her younger sister Joyce (the always delightful Megan Anderson) will have the gentleman callers.  The others in the house are her Pa George (Jim Zidar), her Mam, Peggy (Rosemary Knower), and her grandfather, Andie (Stan Weiman), who is shuttled between the homes of his two daughters.  Joyce's fiancée, the dashing soldier Eric (Ian Lockhart) has brought a fellow soldier, Norman (Clinton Brandhagen) home with him before they are both sent off to battle.  Norman and Helen meet, sparks fly, and the play takes off.

Director Vincent M. Lancisi has not only assembled the perfect cast, he has put together a lovely, smooth flowing production, alternately fast-paced and slow and savory, like a series of memories held together by love and care.  Each facet of Helen's reminiscences is pointed up by sharp details and final frozen moments; the colors and shadings of each are filled in by hazier generalities.  Designers Milagros Ponce de Leon (setting), Mark Lanks (lighting) and Gail Stewart Beach (costumes) have taken that means of recall as elements of their designs as well.  Ponce de Leon's sepia toned set, for example, features a house of rooms, more suggested by an occasional doorway and furniture grouping, and specific areas of the house arranged with details depending on how deeply engrained the memories are.  The front sitting room, signified by a small sofa and chair and warm hazy lighting, is full of general memories and events, while the wall where the statue of Mary is kept is specifically furnished and vibrantly lit.  Similarly, Beach dresses her cast in generic period costumes, but as the memory becomes focused, so to do the costumes – the specific British military costumes, Helen's strange hat, and the like.  Add to that fantastic props (designed by Liza Davis) and an extremely specific accent found in only one small area of England (dialect coaching by Gary Logan), and you get a completely realized concept that is wondrous for its completeness and remarkable for its subtlety. 

It is the performances crafted by each actor and fit together by Lancisi that really raise the level of this play.  It, like life, is a rollercoaster of emotion – love, despair, disappointment, hope, fear and desire.  Weiman's loving portrayal of the grandfather is alternately delightful in its impishness and touching in its honesty.  He is particularly endearing in the opening scene when he is clinging to his dead dog, wrapped in a cloth bag and awaiting "proper services."  You find yourself laughing at and feeling for this man all at once.  He wry delivery of such bon mots as "If you believe it, it's true!" and "What separates the living from a stone is the living's ability to [defecate]!" is priceless.  As his daughter, and the matriarch of the family, Rosemary Knower gives a terrific performance as the religious member of the family who holds a firm grip on her belief in Jesus, and an even firmer grip on the running of her family.  Her quirks and fiery delivery are a scream, and her disappointment at certain events is achingly palpable.  Jim Zidar is a terrific blend of contradictions – his father character is a rough around the edges working man, with a penchant for cranking out tunes on the family piano.  He throws himself with gusto into everything he does, often to the hilarious dismay of his brood.  But lest one becomes too used to his hardened veneer, Zidar finds perfect moments to reveal a softer side, making his character all the more loveable.

Megan Anderson, as always, does a masterful job.  There really isn't anything this talented woman can't do.  Her Joyce is a great ball of fire burning around the rooms of the house with dizzying speed and even faster speech.  Her brilliance at being indecisive is maddeningly realistic, just this side of annoying, and yet completely understandable.  Joyce's love, the dashing Eric played with style, considerable charm, and an undeniable sexuality by Ian Lockhart.  His matinee idol looks – smoldering eyes and debonair physique – coupled with a machismo and not too subtle egotism, create a man easy to fall for, harder to hold on to and impossible to justify.  His military buddy, Norman is played with nuance and passion by Clinton Brandhagen – is every girl's dream and every father's greatest wish – a good guy.  Mr. Brandhagen's heartfelt performance is punctuated with soulful eyes and an endearing delivery of lines.  Any man who is so blinded by love so as to overlook any and all of Helen's flaws is ok in our book, which makes some of his act two revelations both shocking and yet completely understandable.  It is a difficult role to pull off, and this fine young actor does so with brilliance. 

Beth Hylton, though, is a major force in the success of this play.  She gives Helen a deep inner fire, a capacity for passion, and wraps it all up in a package layered with love, understanding and an optimistic sense of humor.  Her courageous acceptance of a lonely life and the inner peace she has made with it, make her fall into love all the more satisfying.  Hylton does as much with a look as she does with a turn of phrase.  You need only watch her face and look into her eyes to see and feel every emotion she portrays.  Her performance, the current gold standard, is mesmerizing – effortless, real and brilliant.

When theatre so completely transports you that you become unaware of your surroundings and anyone else in the room, you know you are in the presence of great theatre.  And a Nightingale Sang is just that – a great evening of theatre.  Laugh, cry, be transported, but most importantly do not miss this one.

PHOTOS: By Stan Barough.  Main Page: Clint Brandhagen and Beth Hylton.  TOP to BOTTOM: The entire Company; Beth Hylton, Megan Anderson and Rosemary Knower; Rosemary Knower and Stan Weiman; Megan Anderson and Ian Lockhart; and Clint Brandhagen and Beth Hylton.

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