‘The Voice of the Turtle," the romantic comedy by John Van Druten that is the final production of Princeton Summer Theater, opened on Broadway in 1943, when the country was in the throes of World War II (and almost every able-bodied young man was in uniform). It went on to become one of the longest-running nonmusical comedies in Broadway history, amassing 1,557 performances until it closed in 1948. The play raised a touch of sweetness in a dark time.
Audiences in the 1940s would have instantly understood that a soldier might be home on leave and leave might be brief. And if a young woman were dating (or more) two (or more) servicemen, these leaves might overlap, which is the springboard for the plot.
A few aspects of the play are dated but it doesn’t matter. This traditional three-act play takes place over a single weekend in April, 1943, in the East 60s New York apartment (two rooms and a walk-in kitchen) of Sally Middleton, a young actress. (Today an aspiring, unemployed actress living alone couldn’t afford that place.) There’s a passing reference to rationing. And there’s a laugh-out-loud line when the actress tells her male friend who made up his own bed, "That’s women’s work." And while today one might laugh at the restraint, the sexual behavior then might have seemed slightly risque.
The play touches on topics that still resonate today, such as the working actor’s life vs. "real" life. And the core topics of the play – love – is, of course, perennial. The fear of being hurt again, emotionally, is with us in whatever era. That the play is set in spring is the playwright’s tool for offering hope (with a huge offstage assist from rainstorms.) Even the play’s title, "The Voice of the Turtle," echoes the springtime metaphor. When Sally objects that turtles don’t have voices, Bill recites lines from the lush passage of the Bible from Ecclesiastes: Song of Solomon: "Rise up, my love. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." Turtle is really "turtledove," a bird whose sad cooing voice is often heard in the spring.
Sally, the actress, is played by the lovely Carly Voigt – hers is a delicate movie-star beauty – and though some of her words are initially inaudible, that passes. A decorous woman, dressed in black, she is concerned with having acted badly in a relationship, wondering about an apology.
She is a contrast to her good friend and fellow thespian, the flamboyant Olive Lashbrooke (convincingly played by Marielena Logsdon), dressed in red. Olive has come to see Sally’s new apartment and has told her date for the evening, Sgt. Bill Page (played by PST artistic director Jed Peterson), to meet her there. While at the apartment she has a phone call from a lieutenant who is in for the weekend. She decides to ditch the sergeant for the lieutenant. When the sergeant arrives at the apartment (I’m told his uniform mistakenly has corporal’s stripes), Olive invents a story that her "husband" has suddenly come to town.
Stood up, Bill (who, by the way, is a Princeton graduate) is left alone with Sally, who tells him of her keen desire to become an actress. Bill soon asks her to dinner.
There are obstacles to keep the audience interested. Sally has been hurt and is wary of being hurt again. She’s not going to let herself sleep with every man she meets. Bill, also hurt, reveals he was approaching marriage with a girl in Paris when the relationship broke up. Both resolve not to become sentimental. Later, at the theater, each of them comes face to face with their former lovers, and each finds himself/herself over the hurt.
Since it is raining heavily outside, Bill accepts Sally’s invitation to sleep over on the day bed in the living room and accepts men’s pajamas from her. When, with the same bad weather continuing, Sally invites him to use the day bed a second night, he accepts, then refuses, explaining he’s a man and she’s a woman, and there’s a beast in him. She confesses, "There’s a beast in me, too." Blackout.
Of course Olive reappears, and proposes a date again with Bill, but he turns her down. Olive berates Sally for snaring Bill. Twosome accomplished.
Though love triangles are perennial language is not. Regarding their attachment, Sally tells Bill, "Let’s keep it light." A man I know who saw the play years ago remembers the line as "Let’s keep it gay."
The Voice of the Turtle, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Through August 14. $13 to $15. 609-258-7062.