First, I’ve just got to mention that a good part of the audience at The Love of the Nightingale left during intermission. That’s funny, I thought, because I kinda liked this play. It’s such a good story–all about love, lust, rape, and honor, a modern twist on Greek tragedy written by one of England’s leading playwrights, Timberlake Wertenbaker. But some didn’t care enough to find out how the story ended.

I’ll admit it’s not an easy play to get into. Even at its most gory, it doesn’t jump off the stage and grab your guts. Nor does it seek to amuse, delight, or otherwise titillate. Actually, it’s pretty didactic. But Wertenbaker’s language is as clear as a mountain stream, and Next Theatre’s production, under the direction of Amy Landecker, proves to be fresh, thoughtful, and quietly entertaining.

The Love of the Nightingale tells the tragic tale of Procne and Philomele, daughters of Pandion, King of Athens. When the play opens Athens is under attack by a neighboring kingdom, but Procne and Philomele frolic innocently in the garden, virtually unaffected by the horrors of war. Serene and sensible Procne has reached marrying age, and her younger sister can’t stop thinking about men and is silly with lust and curiosity.

Pandion’s daughters are quite beautiful, and when armistice is declared the king who led the attack, Tereus, asks for the eldest’s hand in marriage. The queen senses trouble but the diplomatic Pandion consents, and Procne leaves with Tereus for a distant island. Lonely in her new home, she asks him to return to Athens and fetch her sister. Being a dutiful husband, he sets sail immediately.

Once Tereus is in Athens the trouble begins. He becomes tormented by love for the nubile Philomele, who flirts innocently with her new “brother” while watching a performance of Phaedra. Throughout her script, Wertenbaker creates a foreboding sense of tragedy–even the staging of Phaedra spells doom. Like the classical Greek writers, Wertenbaker uses a chorus to comment on the action and move it forward: “Philomele wonders at the beauty of the sea,” they announce once Tereus’ ship has set sail for home. “Tereus wonders at Philomele’s beauty.”

Played out on Bob Smith’s simple but elegant set, completely draped in beige canvas, Landecker’s staging includes strong ensemble acting and stylized fights and rape scenes choreographed by Scott Putman and Ann Boyd. This production reminds me of Lookingglass’s Arabian Nights, but it has a more moderate, intellectual tone. The play’s only humor comes in a handful of cynical comments on the relations between men and women. Landecker does not play up Wertenbaker’s angry feminist stance, however, even when Philomele is lied to and raped and has her tongue cut out by Tereus. Her staging lays out the facts almost without comment. Conclusions as to right and wrong, good and evil, are left to the audience.

Unfortunately, this makes The Love of the Nightingale somewhat less engrossing than it might have been. At the same time it’s refreshing not to be hit over the head with a message. Top that off with strong performances by the chorus, Todd Tesen as Tereus, Amy Pietz as Philomele, Maeve Kanaley as Procne, and Amanda Sullivan as Philomele’s nurse, and Next Theatre has a pretty good show. It might not be for everyone, but it has its appeal.

Due to an editing error, the actress playing Ursula in Jumping at 65 M.P.H. was misidentified in my March 26 review as Michele Zanko. The actress playing Ursula that night was Peggy Davis. Beginning this week, Zanko will play Ursula.