The In-Person Off-Broadway Review: Mint Theater’s The Daughter-in-Law
In 2003, the Mint Theater Company brought The Daughter-in-Law, a forgotten old play over to NYC for what turned out to be an acclaimed run. Mint has that nack, of pulling out of the abyss long-neglected plays in need of revival. Sometimes it doesn’t always work, but other times, more often than not, it really does, and with this play that was written in 1912 by novelist D.H. Lawrence, one year before the 1913 publication of his novel, Sons and Lovers, the triumph was real (although I’m only going by what I’m reading, as I didn’t see it myself. Back in the day, this play sat unproduced and unpublished until 1967 when it was resurrected at London’s Royal Court, and revived once again at The Young Vic in 2002. At the time of that second revival, The Guardian newspaper called it “one of the great British dramas of the 20th century.” So it was with no surprise that the Mint saw some glory in its stateside 2003 revival and then some additional glory in reviving it once again at New York City Center Stage II, giving us all one more chance to be invited into that small English cottage that we see upon entering the theatre.
Set in Lawrence’s native Nottinghamshire, the downtrodden area seems as perfect as one can imagine to dig in and dig out some class dynamics and gender inequality to flesh out for the light of day. The setting is a basic poor coal country town in the East Midlands region of England, landlocked, and stuck deep in some old-fashioned ideas. Lawrence seems to be most interested in unpacking the complicated bond between sons and mothers, a connection that has quite the effect on any wife or woman of interest who might just happen along and get themselves tangled up in the middle of that muddle. This was his intent, creating a melodrama with its roots not far removed from the playwright/author’s own working-class poor upbringing. Much like the couple at the core of this play, Lawrence’s father was a miner married to a woman who they say married far beneath her, and in that tense class structured formulation, the conflict is forever united within The Daughter-in-Law.
It has been said that like the married lead character, Luther in The Daughter-in-Law, and the character of Paul Morel in his novel, Sons and Lovers, Lawrence’s first significant romance was toppled over by his controlling and meddling mother, and this play doesn’t fall too far from that toppled tree. It’s a compelling formulation, one that I was completely unaware of as I never even heard of this play before seeing this solid production. But here lies the dilemma of this slightly problematic “problem” play. The main conflict stays partially hidden from view until halfway through, before Lawrence and this production finally give us a true understanding that the Oedipus complex is at the core of this issue, and not any of the other blind alleyways this plot leads us to believe is at its centralized core.
The piece starts out charmingly enough though, with an accent-laden performance by the wonderful Sandra Shipley (Broadway’s Present Laughter) as the controlling and powerful mother, who, it turns out, is at the center of this melodrama. She holds court with a stern force in the nicely constructed low-end kitchen, designed simply and wisely by Bill Clarke (Broadway’s A Walk in the Woods), with strong straightforward costuming by Holly Poe Durbin (Mint’s Power of Darkness), serviceable lighting by Jeff Nellis (Broadway’s Prymate), and solid original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones (Broadway’s Slave Play). That mother is a hard one to crack, and a hard one to understand. The accent flies out, jangled and difficult to comprehend at first, but our ears slowly adjust to the intense dialect of that coal-mining district of the Erewash Valley, and in that is a wonderment of turns of a phrase and complex slang.
It’s a strong and brittle one, so detailed and discussed that the program contains a glossary of terms concerning the far-reaching topics of mining, money, and the odd words representing simple objects and actions; like ‘Cheek’ (“chelp”), ‘Leftovers’ (“orts and slarts”), and ‘Clumsy’ (“wallit”). The dialectic words rolled out over my head, keeping me a bit at arm’s length at the beginning, but much like Shakespeare, as the production stomps forward, the connection to the characters finds its place, and the ideas find their footing, even if a word here or there is lost in translation.
The actors find their space though, especially Amy Blackman (Tantrum’s Caroline, Or Change) as the daughter-in-law in question. She settles into a fantastic rhythm of strength and honor, even if I didn’t love the wrapping up that comes near the end. The clapping together of her impeccable portrayal of The Daughter-in-Law with Shipley’s formidable mother is heaven on a dirty stick, worthy of the whole adventure. It cracks with beautiful energy when they meet near the end of the play, finally giving us a reason for being interested and staying tuned in during the first unfocused beginnings. Ciaran Bowling (TFANA’s A Midsummer Night’s…) gives some impressive life to the role of the younger unmarried brother particularly when he clarifies his mother’s stronghold on him. “Nay mother—tha knows it’s right. Tha knows tha’s got me—an’ ’ll ha’e me till ter dies—an’ after that—yi!” It’s a shattering truth told beautifully, but only if you can understand the powerful stance he is taking with his mother.
Polly McKie (La Femme Theatre’s A Lovely Sunday…), as the neighbor who has to stand up for her pregnant unwed daughter, finds a clear stance that works well for the role. It’s flitty and engaging, but in the central role of Luther, Tom Coiner (Primary Stages’ God Said This) as directed by Martin Platt (Perry Street’s A Dangerous Personality), enters inauthentically, with a bit too much dirt laid out on his face and shoulders, and I mean that both literally and abstractly. He is at the epicenter of the conflict, and this miner never feels exactly true or plausible. The stage dirt is smeared too thick on the actor’s face, making us all too aware of the theatrics being asserted here, and unable to really take him in at face value.
Lawrence’s novel, Sons and Lovers, is considered by many today as a true masterpiece and his finest achievement, but his play, The Daughter-in-Law, while sharing a number of the same ideals and formulations, is not of the same class. Whether you like that belief or not. Yet in its own intelligent way, Mint has brought back a piece of theatrical history that shines, maybe not as bright as the novel that came out right after. But this production definitely pulls you in, especially as it digs its way towards the end.
Fascinatingly and most fittingly, UK’s National Theater in 2015, co-producing with the Royal Exchange Theater, adapted and mashed together three of his plays; The Daughter-In-Law, A Collier’s Friday Night, and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, all into a single three-hour narrative play entitled Husbands and Sons. Adapted by Ben Power and directed by Marianne Elliott, the mashed-up idea just makes me feel both excited with promise, and ever so sad that I missed it (hopefully I will get my chance one day). That sounds like the adventure I was wanting, but the Mint Theater has most dutifully fulfilled its mission statement with the re-revival of this celebrated play. It unpacks and unearths, once again, a solid worthwhile play from the past to find its place in our present, illuminating an ideal and giving us something to be joyful about. Even if it is a bit too dirty on the face to be fantastic.