Review By Kimberly Rau
The Gamm Theatre in Warwick is hosting the stateside premiere of “The Night Watch,” based on the novel by Sarah Waters and adapted for the stage by Hattie Naylor, and to call it the show to see this winter is an understatement.
“The Night Watch” starts in Britain in 1947, two years after World War 2 officially ended. The characters we meet, from Duncan and his sister, Viv, both with shady pasts and secrets to keep, to the broken-down Kay, are all war-torn. It would be easy to blame the atrocities of the prior decade, but in this piece, the war functions as a mirror for the different ways that people manage to break each other down, bolster them, and, sometimes unwittingly, save them. By the end of Act 1, we are back in 1944, at the height of each person’s destruction, and then, just before curtain, the play gives us a glimpse of each character before their choices, and the war, turned them into the shattered people from Act 1.
With the exception of Viv and a couple of smaller roles, the women in the play are lesbians, from the downright butch mechanic Mickey, with whom Kay worked as an ambulance driver during the war, to the super-feminine Julia, who manages to break Kay’s heart years after their own breakup by stealing away the love of Kay’s life, the closeted Helen. Kay is trying to pick up the pieces of her lost love when she runs into Viv, Helen’s co-worker, who has been seeking her out in order to return a gold ring Kay lent her during the war. The significance of that is explained much later, around the same time we learn why Duncan, Viv’s brother who now lives with a much older man, has spent most of the war in prison.
The focal point of the show, though, is the intertwined same-sex relationships between the women, a microcosm that often gets overlooked or relegated to veiled inference in historical works. Not so here, but this is no retro pulp novel. Waters and Naylor have captured the humanity of each character, and the result is a beautifully flawed showcase of womanhood. Under the direction of Tony Estrella, a team of subtle and extremely talented actors bring every nuance to life.
You couldn’t ask for a better-cast show, and with lots of new faces making their Gamm debuts, hopefully the casting hints at future shows where we might see more of each of them. Gillian Mariner Gordon, who plays Kay, is riveting, whether she is tugging at your heartstrings while mourning her lost love or going out in an ambulance after an air raid with as much gumption as a front-line soldier. Her monologue, delivered from a bare-bones ambulance at the end of the second act, is spine-chilling. Erin Eva Butcher, also a seasoned actress but a Gamm newcomer, presents a totally relatable Viv, a young woman who thinks her life is under her control until it collapses. Her pathos is real, and her ability to rationalize the worst situations is something even the most pragmatic audience member will understand. She pairs wonderfully against the locally known and immensely talented Patrick Mark Saunders, whose Duncan is so pathetic you are hoping someone will rescue him, or, at the very least, give him a sweater and a cup of hot soup. Michael Liebhauser, who plays the reporter Robert– and Duncan’s former cellmate– is valiant in his attempts to do so, but whether Duncan has the ability to stand on his own two feet is questionable. Gamm regulars Rachel Dulude as Helen and Casey Seymour Kim as Mickey are as fantastic as ever. Kim especially has the ability to lend a great deal of nuance to character roles that keep them from tipping into caricature, and this show is no exception.
All of this is performed on a sparse set designed by Michael McGarty, which helps to keep you focused on the dialogue and action. Steve McLellan’s lighting is well-executed and especially important to furthering the energy of the show, and the costume design, which could be an entire review unto itself, is beautifully done by Meg Donnelly.
You couldn’t ask for a better show this winter, and Gamm is lucky enough to have produced it for the first time on U.S. soil. Get in on the ground floor with this one and get your tickets today.
The Night Watch goes through Feb. 10 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets start at $47 ($20 for students) and may be obtained by calling 401.723.4266 or online at gammtheatre.org.