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Princeton Summer Theater Plucks an Old Chestnut From the '40s; "Voice of the Turtle" Wraps Up 2005 Season in a Romantic Mode

Donald Gilpin

The past sixty years have witnessed significant upheavals in the classic boy-meets-girl romantic scenario. A sexual revolution, a feminist movement, and many other surprising developments in our recent history have led to a society in which the forces of conservatism, religious fundamentalism, and sexual abstinence co-exist with an anything-goes culture of "hooking up," "friends with benefits," and the candor of reality TV and all confessions all the time.

But, as Princeton Summer Theater's current production of The Voice of the Turtle (1943) charmingly reminds us, spring time stills brings flowers and the romantic notions of young lovers who engage in the rituals of courtship. And a simple love story can still resonate and provide entertainment and uplift for our distracted time. As the well-read romantic lead states, in quoting from the rhapsodic Song of Solomon in the Bible, "The voice of the turtle (as in turtledove) is heard in our land." Spring, romance and a sort of spiritual rebirth all arrive for the two lonely protagonists during the course of this play.

A romantic comedy – with more romance than comedy, and the latter more likely to evoke warm smiles than loud laughter–John Van Druten's play is one of the longest-running non-musicals in Broadway history, with 1557 performances between 1943 and 1948. A movie version opened in 1947, starring Eve Arden and Ronald Reagan. The play seems a little dusty, with an old-fashioned aura and a certain formality to the dialogue, so it is not surprising that this World War II-era drama is seldom revived. All the more credit is therefore due to director Craig Jorczak and his PST cast and crew for bringing this small gem to life and reminding us that, though the outward trappings may change, the essential steps in the dance of love and desire remain poignantly familiar.

The Voice of the Turtle is the story of Sally Middleton (Carly Voigt), a young actress struggling with her career and her love life in New York City in 1943. The three acts, six scenes, from Friday afternoon to the following Sunday evening in April, all take place in Sally's newly-acquired apartment ($125 per month!) in the East Sixties. Only ten minutes into the first act, Sgt. Bill Page (Jed Peterson), on weekend leave from the army, shows up to meet Sally's best friend Olive Lashbrooke (Marielena Logsdon).

At this point the essential ingredients are all in place. Olive conveniently removes herself as an impediment, temporarily at least, as she exits in quest of yet another beau, and the two protagonists are left alone in Sally's apartment to seek their circuitous paths towards an emotional and sexual relationship – risqué material indeed for 1940s audiences.

Mr. Peterson and Ms. Voigt, stars of all four PST productions this summer, develop these characters and the subtle shifts in their relationship with sensitivity and style. They quickly win us over to sympathize with their respective plights. Still suffering from a soured love affair of five years past, Bill has just been stood up by Olive and finds himself bereft of friends and hotel room for the next three days. Sally has just suffered the disillusionment of an affair with an older married man, a Broadway producer. Both are terrified of any sort of fidelity, reluctant to subject themselves again to the perils of romantic love.

These characters are appealing and thoroughly convincing, as their passions and fears alternately bring them together, then apart again, then back together. Both actors suffer from occasional lapses in diction and projection, and Ms. Voigt at times overplays her character's nervousness. But it's impossible not to care about these two young lovers, from their shy glances at each other to their first hesitant kisses to their aroused passions and their ultimate expressions of a love that promises to endure. The chemistry here is strong, the dialogue is affecting, credible, and witty, and the characters are drawn with nuance and detail. (Sgt. Page, much to the audience's amusement, even went to Princeton University, as did Mr. Peterson, who is entering his senior year!).

Ms. Logsdon presents a strong supporting performance as the aggressive, experienced and cynical Olive, contrasting sharply with the less adventurous innocence of her friend Sally. Olive also delivers several sharp exchanges with Bill, as she first casually discards him, then does her best, in vain, to work her feminine charms on him before a memorably angry and acerbic exit. Unfortunately, her best-friend relationship with Sally, which should help to generate a certain amount of Sally's internal conflict, is less than credible, and the character of Olive, though colorful, does ultimately lack depth and dimension.

Meryl Pressman's costumes – military garb for Bill, exquisite dresses for the ladies, plus some colorful bathrobes and pajamas – vividly evoke the world of the 1940s and help to delineate the characters. Scott Grzenczyk's three-room apartment unit set is sturdy and effective in staging the action. A heavier dose of spring flowers in the final scene and a little art work and lighting to create the beautiful and symbolic spring weather outside the window would contribute significantly in the last two acts.

Mr. Jorczak directs with clarity, moves the action along, and varies the pace appropriately. More attention to projection, especially in the opening minutes of the play, would be helpful.

The Voice of the Turtle culminates an exciting, challenging and highly successful season for Princeton Summer Theater. From suspenseful murder mystery (Dial M for Murder) to Steve Martin's avant-garde absurdist intellectual conundrum (Picasso at the Lapin Agile) to New Testament rock musical (Godspell) to the romantic finale (Turtle) – the boundlessly capable, youthful and versatile PST company has consistently sold out the Hamilton Murray Theater and provided audiences with a rich and diverse selection of theater from the past 60 years.

The Voice of the Turtle will play August 11-14, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and also at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-7062 for tickets or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org.



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