Long buried in a box marked “forgotten” was this remarkable play, now unearthed by Jonathan Banks’ Mint Theater Company, which has brought it back to shimmering life for a run at the Beckett Theatre on West 42nd Street.
What’s remarkable about the production is its relevance, for it was written in 1912 by Stanley Houghton, his third to be produced in Manchester where he lived. It established him as a major playwright, interested in introducing the “woman of ideas,” of which Hindle Wakes has several.
These women come in all sizes, shapes, and ages, but it is one of them, a character called Beatrice Farrar, who emerges as the force that makes her suitor, Alan Jeffcote, grow up to understand her well enough to justify his pursuit of her. I won’t tell you how he fares, but his journey is fascinating and full of surprises.
His father, Nathaniel Jeffcote, is played with appealing variety by Jonathan Hogan, and his mother by Jill Tanner, a most adroit actress. Beatrice’s father, Sir Timothy Farrar, is another example of the range that emerges in family life in northern England during the Edwardian age. That range is remarkable and identifiable under the probing pen of Stanley Houghton, who has even included a servant whose lowly position is marked by her listing in the program merely as “Ada.” She doesn’t even earn a last name.
Here we have a play with the robust humor that is always bubbling below the surface, even in a family bound tightly by the bonds of tradition and society. It avoids sentimentality and it doesn’t romanticize, but it offers insight into what causes prejudice and small-mindedness. It also shows how self -confidence and determination can free almost anyone from the confines of parental boundaries, no matter how well-intentioned they may have been dished out.
The cast is superbly gifted at behaving like they belong in their time and place. From Ada the maid on up, we see things they don’t see in each other. Ada has not yet found the language or the support she needs to do more than accept her position of no power at all. Jonathan Hogan manages to make Alan’s father into a man who is accustomed to behaving very nicely when his authority is not questioned, but when it is, he’s capable of a complete turnaround. When we learn what he came from, it becomes clear how he came to maturity somewhat scarred.
His wife, who is listed only as “Mrs. Jeffcote,” is a woman he refers to as “Mother,” and she is expected to limit her behavior to that one role.
The young woman called Fanny begins the play with a lie – she has been away for the weekend with someone other than the one she owns up to, and her mother is the keen observer who plays Mom with the strength of a lioness who won’t quit until she’s discovered the truth. In that family, Mother is boss; Dad is acquiescent, and daughter is fighting for her spiritual life.
It’s quite a collection of folks all tied together by familial knots, and I found visiting them for two hours very stimulating. I found myself poking and probing into the outer fringes of my own family and realized that it too has variety running all through it, but you do have to know where and how to look.
Sadly, Stanley Houghton had only one year to live after the triumphant reception his play had in 1912. He died at the age of 32 of complications from viral pneumonia, and we lost a writer who had plans to write in future of the larger world than the one he inhabited in Manchester.
Under the watchful eye of director Gus Kaikkonen, and the atmospheric sets, costumes, and lighting designs by Charles Morgan, Sam Fleming, and Christian DeAngelis, the smooth ensemble playing is perfection. I make special mention of young Emma Geer, a 2016 graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, who brings light and love to the admirable Beatrice, who manages to get through to Jeremy Beck’s “Alan Jeffcote” deliciously but firmly enough to help him grow up. The entire cast is first-rate, but Ms. Geer particularly caught my eye. All in all, this production is a big feather in the cap of the Mint Theater.
Running time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.