The Long Kiss Goodnight

Though its shocking subject matter might have been jarring, this superb drama moves with the careful rhythm of music

Goodnight Children Everywhere combines a frank, disturbing, incestuous affair with a gentle, slow-paced London setting lifted straight from one of those BBC dramas about neurasthenic people who drink tea. The concept would confuse a TV producer. "An English family drama set right after World War II? Good idea -- the assisted-living demographic. They watch a lotta TV. Tell me more. ... Whoa, hang on, pal, she does what? To her brother? What are you, fucking crazy? She does that, you'll send mosta those retirees to bed early."

Luckily, this kind of thing can still be done onstage. Goodnight Children is a moving and lyrical piece of theater, as sad and seedy in its portrayal of a family as Long Day's Journey Into Night. The comparison can't be stretched: Children doesn't last three hours, and it's not about morphine, consumption, or family warfare. It's a love story, one that deals with sexual crosscurrents among three sisters and their brother, Peter, who returns to London after six years on a Canadian farm. Their parents were killed in the war -- the year is 1945 -- and Peter, now seventeen, is "a man," as one of his fawning sisters puts it.

The play is based on a little-known upheaval in British history. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, English cities evacuated. Two and a half million Brits fled to the countryside or to other countries in a single confusing weekend, ahead of an anticipated Nazi air invasion. The bombers didn't arrive until 1940, but on that weekend hundreds of thousands of children were separated from their parents for the length of the war. Some lived with relatives in the U.S. or Canada (like Peter in the play); others stayed closer to home, for example in Wales (his sister Vi). Goodnight Children plays out in the aftermath of one family's dismemberment and partial repair, taking its title from a '40s-era ballad about the evacuees.

Sisters and Brothers: Heather Goldenhersh stands out as Vi, but Jesse Pennington is less convincing as Peter.
Ken Friedman
Sisters and Brothers: Heather Goldenhersh stands out as Vi, but Jesse Pennington is less convincing as Peter.
Sisters and Brothers: Heather Goldenhersh stands out as Vi, but Jesse Pennington is less convincing as Peter.
Ken Friedman
Sisters and Brothers: Heather Goldenhersh stands out as Vi, but Jesse Pennington is less convincing as Peter.

Details

Written and directed by Richard Nelson. Produced by the American Conservatory Theater. Scenery by Thomas Lynch. Through March 18. Tickets are $19-61; call 749-2228.
Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F.

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Peter's sisters are all older than he is -- in their late teens and early twenties. Vi wants to be an actress; Ann is pregnant and married to a middle-aged doctor named Mike; Betty works for Mike as a nurse. In the absence of parents Mike is a sort of surrogate dad, and he hangs around the apartment with an ingratiating look on his bearded face, drinking whiskey. (He lives there with Ann.) What we see of the flat looks normal; designer Thomas Lynch has created a period-perfect living room with drab greenish wallpaper and tasseled lampshades, worn plush furniture, and a wooden radio. But unseen parts have been bombed out, like the bathroom. Peter prepares for a bath in the living room by pouring buckets of hot water into a galvanized steel tub and undressing behind a screen. It's not very private, which is the whole point. It gives Ann -- pregnant and married -- the chance to do something with Peter that neither of them fully regrets.

From then on it's a love story, told not in direct conversation but in meaningless, lifelike chatter. Betty, the nurse, is a virgin; she has outbursts of tears and excitement around Peter and nearly collapses when a doctor friend of Mike's takes an interest. Vi has not been a virgin for years, but when she learns about Peter and Ann she stands there shell-shocked, and in a moving but half-conscious monologue reveals a few other family secrets. ("No! This is wrong!" she hollers, but it's not clear whether she's yelling at the present or the past.) And Ann is jealous of Peter's girlfriends. "So how was -- what's her name?"

"Rose."

"I knew it was some kind of vegetation."

Heather Goldenhersh stands out as Vi, vain but appealing, with a lonely haze on her voice that makes her seem worldlier than her sisters. Robin Weigert is a brilliantly discombobulated Betty, wrecked one minute but ecstatic the next, depending on a man's opinion. And Yvonne Woods plays a quirky, surface-proper, storklike Ann, who works herself into restless fugues of empty talk whenever she feels drawn toward Peter. These speeches wash over her at regular intervals, like a tide, and give the play its lyrical rhythm. Charles Shaw Robinson plays a marvelously awkward and idiotic Hugh, the doctor-friend of Mike's, and Jon DeVries gracefully captures Mike's shambling dipsomania. Only Jesse Pennington, as Peter, seems uncomfortable, and he fails to make his fits of emotion convincing.

Goodnight Children is a difficult, melancholy play, and it's sometimes hard to understand -- the audience murmurs with half-deaf husbands asking their wives what just happened -- but it moves like a piece of music. The playwright himself, Richard Nelson, directs with a careful rhythm and sense of detail, and the result is just another reason, in this excellent season for theater, to turn off your damn TV.

 
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