NEW YORK (AP) — Stones are flying around the "glass house" as family members battle for freedom from a tight-fisted tyrant, in "Rutherford & Son," another rediscovered gem currently performing off-Broadway at The Mint Theater.
Revived for its 100th anniversary year by Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank, the compelling drama is directed with tender attention to historical nuances by Richard Corley. The Mint first produced the dark domestic drama in early September 2001, but the opening night of Sept. 12 was overshadowed by catastrophic events
Children's book author Githa Sowerby had a surprise hit in 1912 with her strong play about a tyrannical father and industrialist, which debuted at London's Royal Court Theatre and also performed in New York the same year. Her focus was larger than one man, her play intended as an indictment of the harsh legacy of the impersonal industrial revolution. There was even a feminist undertone, as some of the women needed to deal with their weak-willed men.
Sowerby's success was a rarity in the male-dominated world of that time, aided by the theater manager posting her name as K.G. Sowerby so she could get a fair treatment of her work. Her knowledge of the glassworks was first-hand, as her grandfather had a successful factory which her father also ran for years. She set the scenes with ease, understanding the class system and the harsh attitudes of a powerful businessman. Her use of language is convincing, her characters recognizable and sympathetic.
John Rutherford is a proud, hardworking man, but cold and ruthless as a businessman, boss and father. His first priority is his beloved family glassworks factory in the north of England. When he gets a chance to "make or break" any one of his three adult children, he always chooses to break them, regarding them as his property and mere chess pieces in his plans to keep the factory going. He's not above tricking his most loyal right-hand man of 25 years, Martin, (a forelock-tugging personification by David Van Pelt,) who might sacrifice his own happiness in order to stay with Rutherford.
Robert Hogan plays this heartless bully with aplomb, his eyes twinkling meanly as he repeatedly hurls barbs and insults at relatives and employees. It's a meaty part but Hogan doesn't overdo it; frequent small gestures of contempt or weariness add to his rich characterization.
Sara Surrey is outstanding as Rutherford's single 36-year-old daughter Janet, who appears spirited yet obedient to her father until the exposure of a big secret she's been hiding. Surrey has several impassioned speeches in the second act, and does a remarkable job, expressively conveying a lifetime of Janet's hopes and feelings and disappointments in a few shattering minutes.
Eldest son John, expected to follow his father into the glassworks business, is instead determined to sell his father a money-saving formula and get away from him. Eli James is quite convincing as the feckless, ne'er-do-well John, so bullied and self-pitying that he hasn't been able to make a success of his life, even though he has a sickly infant son to provide for. Allison McLemore flutters around initially as John's supportive disappointed wife Mary, though she proves to have a hidden spine when push comes to shove.
James Patrick Nelson nicely embodies the third son, meek Richard, who became a cleric against his father's wishes. Dale Soules is colorful as a devoted mother of one of Rutherford's fired lower-class workers, who becomes increasingly and comically emboldened as she pleads her son's case to the unfeeling man.
Rutherford would rather be right and get his way even if it means complete unhappiness for his family. When he thinks he's won, he's actually lost almost everything that matters. "Rutherford & Son" is a complex tale of familial frustration and resentment, with hints of empowerment tantalizingly close.