Theater Review: Gamm Theatre’s “The Night Watch” — Living With Fear

By Mary Paula Hunter

The Night Watch supplies a powerful kickoff for the Gamm Theatre’s 2019 season.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, adapted by Hattie Naylor. Directed by Tony Estrella. Staged by the Gamm Theatre at 245 Jefferson Bouleveard, Warwick, RI, through February 10.

Rachel Dulude (l) as Helen Giniver and Gillian Mariner Gordon as Kay Langrish in the Gamm Theatre production of “The Night Watch.” Photo: Peter Goldberg.

To a packed house in its beautiful new Warwick, RI facility, The Gamm Theatre rolled out The Night Watch, the American premiere of a play that centers on a group of Londoners during the Blitz. Adapted by Hattie Naylor from Sarah Water’s best-selling novel of the same name, this is a drama about personal anguish — embedded in the impersonal reality of nightly bombing.

Nuggets of stories, most centered on sexual longing, emerge throughout the two-hour staging. No single story dominates; rather, the focus is on fear and longing, which pops up like flashes of lightning in the storm undergone by average Londoners as well as of those fighting for freedom. Workers in a dating agency, a young reporter on the trail of a first feature, military grunts whiling away the evening over cards, and a troubled laborer in a soap factory (wonderfully played by newcomer Patrick Mark Saunders) live lives mired in fear and rejection.

Waters weaves together lives upended by cultural restrictions — mainly homophobia — but also by the pettiness of human nature: jealousy and envy drive wedges between friends and relatives.  Many of the characters are afflicted by an overwhelming vulnerability, especially the character of Viv, who is evocatively portrayed by Erin Eva Butcher.  Viv is stuck in a dating bureau, caught in a relationship with a married cad and struggling to stay connected to her gay brother and homophobic father.

Those involved in the war effort are constantly diverted by matters of the heart. Gamm Theatre stalwart Casey Seymour Kim plays Mickey, a female member of the volunteer ambulance corps who fantasizes about the beautiful Helen (newcomer Rachel Dulude). Helen, we learn, was saved during a deadly Blitz by Mickey’s colleague, Kay. Helen will forever be attached to Kay, despite the fact she has fallen in love with another. War may complicate human relations, but throughout The Night Watch Waters suggests that  issues of love and loyalty remains elemental.

And while these relationships and their complications come off as authentic, when the story involves conscientious objectors it strikes a false note. It is historically accurate that there were war protestors, but The Night Watch is more about human emotion than detailing attitudes to the war.. Why Duncan and Fraser (the excellent Michael Liebhauser) refuse to fight is never clear, beyond a few lines about war atrocities.

Also, like the novel, the play version is schematic rather than dramatically focused. Told in reverse order, from 1947 to 1940, the two hours roll by with the effortlessness of a film. Director Tony Estrella smoothly moves the action along; the ingenious use of a table deserves its own review. Still, a few design elements are clunky: two staircases, in this case, are one too many, with the ascend and descent of  actors eventually becoming mechanical.

The Night Watch supplies a powerful kickoff for the Gamm Theatre’s 2019 season.

Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces.

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