Making Something out of Nothing: THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE

Hanley Smith and William Connell. Photo by Meghan Moore

The Voice of the Turtle, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 1/5/12-1/29/12,

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Lowell, MA)  In comic books, as in soap operas, you’re always hoping your favorite super hero will finally get his/her romantic mate.  It was such a relief when Lois finally slipped off Superman’s glasses and figured out that Clark was a world-beater.  And Peter Parker was always getting such a raw deal, even though he could have crushed his foes with his bare hands as Spider-Man, that it was a blessed event when Mary Jane finally noticed him.

But as soon as that happened, the characters stopped growing and the dialogue in the comics became just painful.  It would be “darling” this and “sweetie” that, with some artful fade-outs when the couple needed some alone-time.  The conversations grew so bad to read that you couldn’t wait for Lex Luthor to erase Lois’s memory with a Wipe-O ray gun and the courtship could start all over.

This is the central problem that the actors face in The Voice of the Turtle, playing at the Merrimack.  (No, not a ray-gun.)  The play lacks any real hurdle for the characters to overcome, and that means the actors must spin their wheels and stay interesting for just under two hours of stage-time.  Lead actors Hanley Smith and William Connell do a commendable job, shaping three-dimensional characters in a two-dimensional world.  Because of their strong performances, I only wished for Luthor to burst in with the ray gun in the final act.

The problem is that Voice was written as a contemporary piece for G.I. crowds in World War II, and it has not aged into a period piece.  Instead, the script reads like an escapist, if edgy, sitcom, for a war-weary population.

The nominal plot: An older actress, Olive (Megan Byrne) is visiting the New York apartment of a younger actress, Sally, (Smith) when she discovers she’s double-booked for steamy dates with two G.Is on leave.  One G.I., Bill (Connell), shows up at the apartment and Olive gives him the brush-off.  Sally, coming off her own painful breakup, takes pity on Bill and gives him a place to stay on leave.  The two hit it off and play house for two acts, eventually starting to call each other pet names.

Academically, the play can be an interesting study in theater history.  Voice opened in 1943 and was widely popular until it closed in 1948, with G.Is packing in the theaters to see it.  One can see why; writer John Van Druten wrote a wartime fantasy without the war.  The only role the war plays is as a plot-device for shore-leave.

Meanwhile, the play takes a pretty progressive stand for its time on sex before marriage, which might explain why it didn’t fly in the fifties.  All the characters are sexually active before marriage and no one has to pay a moral price for it.  The progressiveness continues with women working outside the home with no problem, mirroring the Rosie-the-Riveter attitude of the wartime years, when sexism had to be put partly on hold out of necessity.  So when theatergoers went to see Voice, male audiences got to see themselves look dashing, be honorable and worldly and get the girl without having to go off and die; female audiences got to have a fulfilling career, sex and get the great guy.  Everyone won.

But director Carl Forsman should have known better than to leave his actors out to dry by playing this stale script straight.  The production screamed out for some kind of reinterpretation, even if to give a sense of foreboding that the dashing military uniform Bill is wearing could be the death of him.  It would have been so easy to slip in a war bulletin on the radio or an aversion to reading the newspaper.  Or he could have shown how the couple was right about to slip into the repressive gender roles of the fifties.  But Forsman goes straight for nostalgia in this production, and he doesn’t do it well.  Gone is the giddiness of the home front that one can see in better productions of Biloxi Blues, traded in for a sitcom-apartment style of awkwardness.

Both Smith and Connell should be commended for breathing life into their characters.  Smith seems to understand that she needs to create inner movement in her character where this is none, and she endows Sally with inner workings so quirky that no one knows where she is going, even her.  Connell also seems to understand his character has to do something, and he gives Bill the awkwardness of someone who has been told to be a patriarch in society, but doesn’t feel comfortable doing it.

If you need a shot of weak nostalgia or want to watch actors overcoming tall odds, then the Voice of the Turtle is your play.  Otherwise, look for conflict elsewhere.

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