England’s industrial north is celebrated for its harsh winter weather, and for the equally harsh, tyrannically wintry Victorian manufacturers who made its gray stone factory buildings and smokestack-polluted air one of the prevailing images of life in the Machine Age. With their hard-handed business methods and their rigid morality, as chilling as the wind on the surrounding moors, the North Country’s grim industrialists unintentionally produced their own opposition: Rebellious creative spirits, escaping from these magnates families, enshrined their tyranny in fiction and drama.
A prime example of that creative counterforce would be Rutherford & Son (Mint Theater), a cogent, bluntly effective drama by Githa Sowerby (1876-1970), whose grandfather had founded one of the largest glassworks in Newcastle—and arranged marriages, for his six children, all carefully calculated to work to the firm’s advantage. Githa’s father, who quit the firm to pursue a career as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, was among the first to rebel. His daughter, having initially followed him into the children’s-book field, memorialized his rebellion in this one memorable play, which made her the talk of 1912 London, though the talk seems to have faded quickly, not picking up again till Britain’s National Theatre revived it in 1994. (This is the Mint’s second production of the work; it received its New York premiere there in 2001.)
The Rutherford & Son glassworks dominates the town of Grantley, and old man Rutherford (Robert Hogan) dominates his unhappy family with the same sternness he employs at work, abetted by his equally unsmiling spinster sister, Ann (Sandra Shipley). But the glassworks is doing badly, and Rutherford’s domicile is doing worse. One of his two sons, Richard (James Patrick Nelson), sincere and fatuous, has gone into the Church, only to become the town’s laughingstock. Rutherford’s other son, John (Eli James), slaves for his father reluctantly, while dreaming up inventions that will earn him, his wife, Mary (Allison McLemore), and their infant son the money to flee both the north and his dictatorial pater.
Young John vests his hopes in a new glassmaking process he has worked out with his father’s loyal foreman, Martin (David Van Pelt). But it turns out that his older sister, Janet (Sara Surrey), has also been investing certain hopes in Martin, and when it comes to the crunch, Martin’s loyalty to their domineering father leads both son’s and daughter’s plans to the scrap heap, along with his own. This leaves the house far emptier than before, with old Rutherford just becoming aware of the extent to which he has managed to wreck his own hopes for both family and firm.
The play’s unremitting bleakness, rather than its author’s gender, probably explains why it has tended to be forgotten after its periodic bursts of acclaim. Yet its power, in performance, is as plain as its wealthy family’s austere lifestyle. Linear, lucidly laid out, a conveyed in brusque, convincing dialogue, it makes an evening that’s highly involving without being very much fun. Richard Corley’s production, solid and mostly right in tone, errs a little on the side of earnestness, allowing the actors to slip into the same somber tempo rather than finding ways for them to contrast. Still, they mostly do well, particularly Surrey, who works her role up to a genuinely heartfelt pitch. And Dale Soules, as the drunken mother of a sacked workman, provides a welcome touch of earthy relief from this houseful of cold stares in a cold climate.