LOWELL - “The Voice of the Turtle’’ unfolds as a lovely antidote to cynicism. The World War II-era drama by John Van Druten, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, could play like an old-fashioned museum piece. But Carl Forsman directs his trio of actors with such a light touch that he gives the story - about a young woman who’s made a mistake in love and wants to avoid the possibility of heartbreak again - a remarkably contemporary feel.
The action takes place over a weekend in the charming little East Side apartment of aspiring actress Sally Middleton (Hanley Smith), who has just ended her relationship with a married man and admits she struggles to control her sexual desires. The character’s morals shocked audiences when the play opened on Broadway in 1943, but Van Druten (“I Remember Mama,’’ “I Am a Camera’’) is not interested in salacious details.
His concern is the character’s vulnerability and her longing to love. Van Druten gives Sally a delicious monologue in which she wonders if the rules of behavior for women that she was taught in Joplin, Mo., apply in New York City. She asks her friend and fellow actress, Olive Lashbrooke (Megan Byrne, no relation to this reviewer), if giving in to her passion makes her promiscuous.
The plot is set in motion by the arrival of Sergeant Bill Page (William Connell), an occasional beau of Olive’s who’s in town on a weekend furlough. Olive has asked him to pick her up at Sally’s apartment, but when Olive gets a better offer, she dumps Bill and leaves him with Sally. The rest of the play revolves around Sally and Bill’s hesitant courtship. As these two fall in love, the audience bears witness to the timeless journey of two people taking a risk together.
Smith gives Sally such an open-hearted delivery that it’s impossible not to be charmed by her. It would be easy to play Sally as a dumb blonde, and Van Druten’s dialogue occasionally makes her seem a bit ditsy. But in Smith’s hands, Sally is not so much naïve as simply inexperienced. Actors, she says, “give our whole lives to make-believe,’’ but it’s clear she’s trying to find some middle ground between her dreaminess and life’s sometimes disappointing reality.
As Bill, Connell is unpretentious and straightforward, transforming from a soldier looking forward to a weekend fling with Olive into a man willing to open himself up to love with Sally.
Forsman’s production pays as much attention to the design details as it does to the character portrayals. Bill Clarke’s cozy apartment set, with each room painted a different bright color, makes everything seem natural, from the cooking of scrambled eggs to the late-night dunking of cookies in milk by characters clad in Theresa Squire’s period costumes. Josh Bradford’s subtle lighting allows the city skyline to change hues delicately with the passage of time.
The years have not dimmed “The Voice of the Turtle,’’ or dampened the hope implicit in its sincere approach to romance.Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.