Rutherford & Son

by Githa Sowerby
Directed by Richard Corley
Featuring Sara Surrey, Allison McLemore, Robert Hogan, John Patrick Nelson
Mint Theater Company, 311 West 43rd Street
February 27, 2012 — April 3, 2012 [extended]
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
February 22, 2012

(L-R) Sara Surrey, Robert Hogan. Image Richard Termine.

There are social movements and resonant political history throughout Rutherford & Son and this particular production, some of which emerges from the text itself and some from the fact that this is a restaging of a 2001 production from this company and these actors soon after 9-11.  I am new to this 1912 work that, playwright biographer Patricia Riley‘s playbill essay informs me, was wildly and positively received when first staged by the Royal Court in London, written by a woman more experienced in children’s literature and poetry at the time, with a life story (grandfather was an industrialist and father left the business) and political interests (she became a socialist) that informs the speeches and characters and dramatic arcs of the drama.  Githa Sowerby‘s language soars and plods when required. The direction by Richard Corley is often and unnecessarily leaden and totally earthbound. In the end, this worthy revival contains some exceptional performances and a running time that feels every moment of its length.

John Rutherford (Robert Hogan) runs his glass business and his household to serve his needs after the death (little discussed in the play) of his wife and mother of his children.  Youngest son John (Eli James) ran off to marry working class Mary (Allison McLemore), and has returned to the household with wife and now baby after a failure in business. John feels misunderstood, and actor James captures the petulant youngest child’s entitlement admirably. Another son Richard (James Patrick Nelson) is a priest and seems to annoy his father more than anything. He, after all, won’t officially perpetuate the family name so, as one character concludes, “doesn’t count.” Middle-aged daughter Janet (Sara Surrey) serves the household, conducts a surreptitious romance with father’s plan supervisor Martin (David Van Pelt) and lives within social restrictions that break your heart. The household is rounded out with two additional older women: housekeeper Mrs. Henderson (Dale Soules) and Mr. Rutherford’s sister Ann (Sandra Shipley) who provide wit, humor, and resolve where necessary. The senior Rutherford does indeed support many and in return expects them to serve him, according to his pleasure. He demands total allegiance and, one by one, by choice or by commands, everyone leaves. Believing in themselves, believing in their value of their ideas, believing in their future outside the limits of Rutherford’s life view. A bleak, icy, windswept fable, with lovely language.

Our play, then, involves an industrialist patriarch around whom a world revolves for a time, repressive class politics, and the costs of business success in the industrial pre World War I early 1900s in the north of England. All too often during the almost 3 hour run time characters stare into space or stare at one another when only two characters interact. It’s staging by dumb show and I do believe this script and this particular story could hold up to more activity — not upstaging the action but keeping this internal stage world animated while highlighting the stories being told. Sound design by Ellen Mandel paints a moving, windswept portrait. The production is astutely dressed (costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane) and ornamented (set by Vicki R. Davis), and the speeches delivered movingly, though almost entirely motionlessly. Close your eyes and this is a radio play. On that level, this production succeeds marvelously.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 27, 2012)

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