Staring out from the cover of the Playbill for Goodnight Children Everywhere is the face of a sad little boy. He is clinging to the hand of a woman whose back is to us, her shoulders and head bent dejectedly. That photo evokes a slice of World War II history that began in 1940 when air raids forced hundred of thousands of London parents to send their children to safety. Necessary as these family separations were they often left lifelong psychic wounds, what Caroline Bird identified as "the invisible scar" the Great Depression left on those who experienced it.
By the time Richard Nelson's play opens the little boy in the Playbill photo is seventeen and returning to London after having spent more than five years with relatives on a Canadian farm. While Peter (Chris Stafford) won't see his mother again (both she and his dad have been killed in the war), it's nevertheless a time to rejoice. His three older sisters, two of whom were also sent into foster care during the war, have re-established themselves in the family's South London flat and are overjoyed to have their little brother back in the fold.
But of course nothing can ever be the same for these four young people whose lives were so cruelly interrupted by the war. They're all young and the war is over, yet their lives, despite the spurts of exuberance, somehow seem as worn and lackluster as the flowers on the cocoa colored wallpaper and the threadbare Oriental carpets. As Nelson takes us past the hugs and giggles of the siblings' reunion we see three young women who are an awkward mix of bubbly adolescence and the sad resignation and compromising behavior of much older women: Mike, (Jon DeVries) the one man in their lives is the middle-aged doctor Betty (Robin Weigert) works for and would have happily married if he hadn't chosen middle sister Ann (Kali Rocha) instead. The only sister who seems to be aiming for a somewhat more adventurous life is the vivacious Vi (Heather Goldenhersch), but even her theatrical aspirations seem weighted by a lack of purpose and world-weary sexual cynicism.
The return of the young brother exacerbates this conundrum of the sisters' seesawing between childhood and womanhood and being not quite at home in either. His youthful sexuality is in sharp contrast to the fifty-year-old Mike who has become a prize in the post-war world with its imbalanced young men-to young women ratio. The irrecoverable lapses in shared family memories, (playwright Nelson is best when he writes scenes filled with pauses as in the opening reunion), also brings into focus the shadowy truth about the not-so-happy reality of the past as well as current family dynamic. As hidden truths explode into unleashed sexual feelings on the part of Ann, the most unhappy of this unhappy Chekhovian trio, Nelson's ambition to use the larger canvas of the war to intensify the flaws in the smaller canvas of the family stumbles into overcooked melodrama. Granted, the generally snail-like pace of his direction, calls for something to jolt the audience. That something occurs shortly before the intermission when Ann's motherly, playful behavior towards Peter takes an incestuous turn. It's all done with almost proper English decorum while Pete is bathing in a metal tub hidden by a fireplace screen (the family lost its bathroom when the landlord chopped up the large flat to create two smaller ones).
To underscore his double theme of youth lost and desperately reclaimed in a few days and the war's impact on the male-female balance sheet, Nelson introduces two other outsiders: a doctor colleague of Mike's (John Rothman) and his daughter (played by Amy Whitehouse who one hopes will soon stop being typecast as too shrill, somewhat dumb teenagers). Dr. Hugh's bitterness over his wartime divorce has made him impervious to the feelings of his daughter or any woman. Robin Weigert's eagerness to date this obnoxious man makes one bleed for her as her rejection of him gives more cause for hope of better things to come then the final family lullaby to Ann's baby.
For all the dysfunctions revealed to the strains of the title song (taken from a popular song used at the close of a popular BBC children's program of the period) and the music of Harry James, Good Night Children Everywhere never really gets anywhere in helping the audience to get a clear handle on its characters' ambiguities. Fortunately, the performances, especially by the key players are wonderful. Stafford is quietly effective as the brother on the edge of manhood who doesn't quite know how to act with these child-women sisters. ( He played another young man on the edge of sexual awakening in a 1998 movie comedy-drama, Edge of Seventeen which also featured Lea DeLaria). Weigert, Rocha and Godenhersh tap into the lost children in the young women they play movingly enough to overcome this well-made play's failure to play really well. Add the visual assets provided by Thomas Lynch's down-to-the-last detail accurate set and Susan Hilferty's equally authentic costumes, and you have a play with enough pluses to offset its shortcomings.
| GOODNIGHT CHILDREN EVERYWHERE.
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
With (in alphabetical order: Heather Goldenhersh, Jon DeVries, Kali Rocha, John Rothman, Chris Stafford, Robin Weigert, Amy Whitehouse
Set design: Thomas Lynch
Costume design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting design: James F. Ingalls
Sound design: Raymond D. Schilke
Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., (212/ 279-4200)
Extended to 7/11/99!
Reviewed by Elyse Sommerbased on performance 5/26/99 matinee performance