Keeping calm while carrying on – quite a lot of carrying on, really – is the theme of The Night Watch, the Gamm Theatre’s US premiere of Hattie Naylor’s adaptation for the stage of Sarah Waters’ novel set in London during World War II and its immediate aftermath. The first act is set in 1947 (two years after the end of the war in 1945) and serves to introduce the characters and main elements, and then the second act set in 1944 and the third act set in 1941 unwind and explain how those characters got where they ended up. Telling the story “backwards” is an effective narrative structure in this case, and the script is unusually conscientious about tying up loose ends and making it all make sense, like looking at the picture on the box of a jigsaw puzzle while fitting the pieces together.
The point of historical plays and novels, whether aficionados admit it or not, is to place essentially modern characters with essentially modern issues into an historical environment where the culture responds differently to those modern issues. Novelist Sarah Waters set her lesbian protagonists in a trilogy of the Victorian era (Tipping the Velvet, 1998; Affinity, 1999; Fingersmith, 2002), and then in her fourth novel, The Night Watch, 2006, in the 1940s. In her fiction, same-sex relationships are treated as ordinary, matter-of-fact romantic entanglements with all of the usual occurrences such as awkward breakups and love triangles, something still not often seen in mainstream drama.
Of course, characters are limited to the gender roles open to them in their historical time, so British women during World War II became ambulance drivers at home rather than warriors at the front lines, and much of this “women’s work” could be far more psychologically damaging, tending to dying civilians including children amidst corpses at bombing sites in London. “Kay Langrish” (Gillian Mariner Gordon) was an ambulance driver during the war on a team with “Mickey” (Casey Seymour Kim); when we first meet Kay, living upstairs from her Christian Scientist practitioner landlord “Mrs. Leonard” (Meg Kiley Smith), she is so uncomfortable leaving her home that she has to force herself to take walks. “Julia Standing” (Smith) is in a relationship with “Helen Giniver” (Rachel Dulude), who is the co-worker of “Viv Pearce” (Erin Eva Butcher), who is the sister of “Duncan Pearce” (Patrick Mark Saunders), whose wartime experiences with “Robert Fraser” (Michael Liebhauser) and “Horace Mundy” (Jim O’Brien) are unlikely to be recounted in that traditional children’s game of “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” Kay and Viv turn out to have a critical but coincidental connection that brings both a degree of closure.
The Night Watch at Gamm is a good story well told, fun to watch with a spare set – credited to Michael McGarty – consisting mostly of scaffolding, banners, and a period floor-standing cabinet radio that eventually “plays” 1940s classics ranging from “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn to “Der Fuehrer’s Face” by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. The British accents are unusually on point – Candice Brown is credited as dialect coach – careful to reflect the background and social class of the speaker, from implicitly posh Robert to nearly Cockney Mickey. The costumes are faithful and detailed – credited to Meg Donnelly – down to the painted letter “A” on the helmets of Kay and Mickey; the British, in typical no-nonsense fashion, used “A” for “ambulance,” “R” for “rescue,” “W” for “warden,” “F” for “fireman,” and so on. The dramaturgy article in the program by URI Lecturer Rachel Walshe is well worth reading.
Among a uniformly excellent cast, Gordon as Kay brilliantly employs subtle nuance to portray a quiet hero for whom things have gone tragically wrong, but not tragically enough relative to many others in her experience that she suffers from a kind of survivor’s guilt. Butcher as Viv, Saunders as Duncan, and Dulude as Helen acquit their important roles well. Kim is noteworthy in both the major role of Mickey and in the comic minor role of “Mrs. Alexander,” a factory manager where Duncan works. Director Tony Estrella has put on the stage a straightforward, realistic, character-focused story about people caught up in great world events totally beyond their control, struggling to cope with loss, disappointment, and smaller problems in their lives that seem likewise totally beyond their control. Hardly an exercise in nostalgia, The Night Watch at its best is reminiscent of a really good 1940s movie.
The Night Watch, adapted by Hattie Naylor from a novel by Sarah Waters, directed by Tony Estrella, Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick. Through Feb 10. About 2h including 15-minute intermission. Handicap accessible. Refreshments available including full bar. Tel: 401-723-4266 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: gammtheatre.org/thenightwatch Facebook: facebook.com/events/1509149115895885