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The Voice of the Turtle

By New York City
Nick Toren and Elizabeth Bunchin The Voice of the Turtle
Nick Toren and Elizabeth Bunch
in The Voice of the Turtle
[The Keen Company production of The Voice of the Turtle, first seen at the Blue Heron Arts Center in September, has moved to the Mint Theater. Below is a reprint of David Finkle's September 27, 2001 review, followed by an update on the change of venue.]

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When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked on September 11, commentators opined that America had finally lost its innocence as a result of the infamy--without noting that the same pronouncement has been issued at least once a decade since the 1770s. Apparently, virginity is a reclaimable condition. That unusual tenet happens to be an underlying message of The Voice of the Turtle, a romantic comedy by John van Druten that opened in 1943, during the country's last good war. In its genuinely charming way, the play remains surprisingly and reassuringly pertinent in its current production by the Keen Company at the Blue Heron Arts Center--and not just because one character observes that it's difficult to get a cab on Third Avenue when it's raining.

The three figures in the play are, pointedly no longer virgins. Fifty-eight years ago, that fact prompted published accusations of the "I-haven't-seen-this-scurrilous-tract-and-I-don't-plan-to-but-nevertheless-I-condemn-it" variety. Struggling twentysomething actress Sally Middleton (Elizabeth Bunch), raised in Joplin, Missouri to be a good girl, is shocked at herself for having sailed into two affairs--the most recent with a married Broadway producer--and vows, as the play gets going, to abjure such undertakings until she's 30. She makes this declaration to her caustic pal, Olive Lashbrooke (Megan Byrne), a fellow actress whose sexual mores are even more relaxed. Olive has been carrying on a casual affair with a soldier called Bill Page (Nick Toren). On the early spring weekend in which the play unfolds, she essentially hands care of him off to Sally when a more interesting prospect turns up for her: an officer with whom she thinks she is in love.

Once Olive has dumped Bill with an excuse about being married (which he doesn't buy), he and Sally are left in her upscale apartment to make the most of an awkward situation. They do this in the best possible fashion, by gradually falling in love. Well, more or less gradually; he sleeps on her living-room sofa the night they meet, having found no other accommodation in a city where the hotels are full. After 24 hours or so have gone by, Sally and Bill realize they're made for each other...and proceed to make each other.

That they bed down on the second date is what shocked, if not outraged, much of the theatergoing crowd in the early mid-1940s. Ticket-buyers may also have been alarmed when Bill reported a past including a number of informal sexual connections plus one serious, failed liaison. A rich Princeton graduate who confides he wasted the first 25 years of his life, Bill is intent on not repeating past mistakes--the most important being not to fall in love with someone who can't or won't love him back. It's on these grounds that he and Sally come into conflict. Fearing that she's breaking the promise she made to herself, she insists to Bill that they "keep it gay"--a term that doesn't mean quite the same thing now as it did in 1943. Whatever suspense the play contains has to do with whether or not Sally will come to her senses before the final curtain.

In recommending van Druten's work, there's no need to claim it as a boulevard masterpiece. It isn't that, but it's a craftily crafted item, the product of a playwright very successful in his time. (Concurrently, his I Remember Mama was also a mainstream hit.) The delectable Sally was originally played by Margaret Sullavan, and it doesn't seem unlikely that the character's quirks were thought up with that light comedian's skills in mind. One of Sally's distinguishing traits is an overwhelming sympathy for the lonely plight of inanimate objects--she grieves when, for example, a radio has played to an empty room. This is the kind of thing Sullavan could do in her sleep.

Van Druten's manipulations of the plot turns, like getting Olive off stage so Sally and Bill have to spend time together, are deftly handled. He also neatly pulls off a series of coincidental, out-of-sight meetings between Sally and her last lover and Bill and his old fiancée. In addition, these characters have a certain amount of depth. Bill, in particular, is not a thoroughly jolly but callow young man of 32 or 33; he's a well-read, introspective adult. Even the names chosen by the canny author--Middleton (coming from the middle of a conservative and still naïve country), Page (turning over a new one), Lashbrooke (hard and soft)--have resonance.

Poster art for The Voice of the Turtle
Poster art for The Voice of the Turtle
Besides these attributes, van Druten infuses his script with a subtle spirituality foreshadowed in the title: It's a quote from the Song of Solomon concerning the end of winter and the onset of spring, when the voice of the turtle(dove) is heard in the land. (Bill recites the excerpt to Sally, who is unfamiliar with it.) In the play's last scene, Bill fills Sally's apartment with bouquets because she's told him she loves flowers. It would be underestimating van Druten to think he didn't intend this as an allusion to the rebirth of innocence that spring traditionally represents.

The Keen Company production, directed sensitively and sensibly by Carl Forsman, is commendable. Though the petite, longhaired Bunch takes a while to find her footing, she plays much of the three acts with freshness and verve. (It's unfortunate for her that the opening lines are Juliet's; Sally is rehearsing Shakespeare's tragedy and seems unready to take it on.) Byrne is a few shades too brittle as the gabby and ultimately possessive Olive Lashbrooke, putting too much emphasis on the "lash" and not enough on the "brooke. " Still, she lands her laughs, and she looks swell in Theresa Squires' period frocks. As Sergeant Bill Page, the tall, athletically lean Toren is flawless. His portrait of an upstanding man resolved to live his beliefs has innumerable layers, and he is particularly good at playing a man falling for a woman whose whims he doesn't begin to fathom.

A word about Nathan Heverin's set--which, according to van Druten's script, must display the living room, bedroom, and kitchen of a $125-a-month dream flat. (That was a lot of moolah in 1943.) Within the narrow space allotted him, Heverin has put up a little haven that would be a steal in any market. It even includes the sunken living area that van Druten also specifically calls for. Sound designer Stefan Jacobs highlights hit tunes from the era: The Andrews Sisters, Billie Holiday, and Vaughn Monroe are among the period chart-toppers represented.

The only major difference between The Voice of the Turtle at the Mint and at the Blue Heron is a minor one. Because of a difference in the heights of the two stages, Sally Middleton's sunken living room is now less sunken. A step has been lost, making the $125 rental slightly less of a real estate steal than it was. The text, however, has in no way been rendered less deep.

The production remains charming and intelligent on the subject of people who've made young and foolish relationship decisions learning how to right those wrongs. And, if anything, Elizabeth Bunch, Megan Byrne, and Nick Toren have added appealing subtleties to their performances. Byrne, especially, is making the sharp-tongued Olive tangier, sadder, and angrier. As for the relevance of the World War II play to the new war, the poignant quality remains undiminished and undoubtedly will continue to remain so until the voice of the turtle is once again heard throughout every land.


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