By Harry Forbes
It would be pleasant to report that Lillian Hellman’s seven-performance 1936 flop, written shortly after her sensational lesbian-themed drama “The Children’s Hour,” and derided by the critics, is an underappreciated gem.
But sad to say, it seems to me those critics were on the mark, though the WPA Theatre’s 1978 revival was admittedly greeted more warmly. Still, whatever your viewpoint, the play is not without merit, and Mint Theater Company has done a commendable job in giving it a classy staging.
The plot revolves around a labor dispute at an Ohio brush factory modelled, it seems, on the historic Wooster Brush Company, though the town here is called Callom. The owner Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull) has hired thuggish strikebreakers to deal with the recalcitrant workers and protect the Rodman family: Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily) and a couple of goonish henchmen, Mossie Dowel (Geoffrey Allen Murphy) and Joe Easter (Evan Zen). Rodman’s wife Julie (Janie Brookshire) is moodily discontented with her marriage and the current situation, and is prone to solitary walks.
On one such outing, she breaks protocol and visits the stalwart leader of the strike Leo Whalen (an excellent Roderick Hill) for reasons she at first finds difficult to articulate, but there’s a romantic frisson to the encounter. That night, however, she and Whalen witness a crime that propels the action of the far more absorbing second act.
Rounding out the Rodman household are Rodman’s bossy and brittle sister Cora (Mary Bacon), co-owner of the factory, Rodman’s friend and lawyer Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy) and maid Lucy (Betsy Hogg) and cook Hannah (Kim Martin-Cotten), who knows all the family’s dirty secrets, and harbors a soft spot for the workers.
The first act, as indicated, takes a while to get going, but beginning with the clandestine meeting between Julie and Whalen onwards, the plot grips. When hot-headed worker Tom (Chris Henry Coffey) ignores Whalen’s advice not to fight, tragedy ensues, all culminating in recriminations and revelations.
Family dysfunction is Hellman’s main focus, more than the labor backdrop. She herself wrote, ”It’s the story of innocent people on both sides who are drawn into conflict and events far beyond their comprehension” and also their lack of values which bring about dire consequences for the community.
Some of J.R. Sullivan’s direction is, I feel, too low-keyed and conversational whereas a more heightened delivery would be more compelling. Performances are all competent, several more than that, especially Daily as the ruthless strikebreaker.
Harry Feiner’s set convincingly suggests the affluence of the well-to-do household with a neat revolve to Whalen’s headquarters. Andrea Varga’s costumes are attractively period. Christian Deangelis’ lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound design are first-rate. And hat’s off to Fight Director Rod Kinter for staging a neat piece of violent action which I won’t spoil.
(Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through October 6)
Photo by Todd Cerveris: (l.-r.) Janie Brookshire, Roderick Hill, and Dan Daily.