There’s nothing like traveling coach on a no-frills flight or squeezing yourself into the backseat of a Zipcar to make you long for the bygone romance and leg room of train travel. (Or maybe it isn’t entirely bygone: Think of the joys of the New Haven line bar car.)
Yet in 1918, when Broadway mainstay Rachel Crothers came to write A Little Journey, briskly revived at the Mint, not everyone looked forward to a railroad trip. As two society friends come to wave off the newly impoverished Julie (Samantha Soule), one wails, “A train’s so much worse than a boat. You can get away from people a little on a boat.”
But Crothers herself doesn’t want to get away from people. Instead, she wants to take various classes and races and types and mash them together (both figuratively and, following a calamity, literally) in the compact environs of a Pullman car. In the four days it takes to go across the country in A Little Journey, love blooms, tempers flare, and, thanks to a pleasantly silly melodramatic contrivance, disaster arrives.
Crothers is known less for her lyricism than for her craftsmanship. A Little Journey offers a jerkier ride than most of her better-known work, such as A Man’s World and Susan and God, but this bumpier construction renders the piece looser and more likeable than some. She relies heavily on stereotype (dotty granny, collegiate scamp), which Jackson Gay’s intelligent direction can only do so much to ease, and while her other plays often challenge fixed ideas about masculinity and femininity, this only confirms them—as when a cooing infant allows Julie to flourish.
And yet there’s still some truth to what the New York Tribune wrote back then, that “Crothers must be admitted to the small and select group of those who have tried to reveal America to Americans.” Just when her characters seem generic, they have a line or a scene that renders them beautifully singular. The last act rounds things off much too neatly and engages in some dreary sermonizing about how adversity ennobles us (don’t forget the 1918 composition date). Still, it’s a fine thing to be reminded that travel can indeed be broadening, if occasionally fatal.