Introducing its two-year initiative for audiences to “Meet Miss Baker” – with the American premiere of three works by English playwright Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962), readings of a selection of her other plays, and the publication of Elizabeth Baker Reclaimed in 2020 – Mint Theater Company opens with The Price of Thomas Scott for a limited engagement at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row. Directed by the Mint’s Artistic Director Jonathan Bank, the series is part of the company’s commendable mission to champion neglected female writers and rarely-produced plays by women.
Now a period piece, which had only one previous production at Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre in 1913, the even-handed narrative considers the moral dilemma of shop-owner Thomas Scott, who, though ready to retire from his declining draper business, is reluctant to sell because of the buyer’s intent to convert the building into a dance hall. His religious-based aversion to the “immorality of dancing” (and theater, though he’s never actually been to a dance or a play – a semi-autobiographical reference to Baker’s own upbringing by rigidly religious parents) not only endangers the welfare of his financially strapped family, but also raises social issues of old conservative strictures versus new progressive views, conscience and conviction versus prejudice and hypocrisy, and a puritanical refusal to compromise or to move forward in a changing world.
Though set in earlier times, the eternal question of Scott “selling his soul to the devil” or standing by his principles still holds weight in the universal conflict between money and ethics, as does the theme of traditional male dominance, with its expectation of female obedience and acquiescence, and the elder generation’s impact and control over the younger. Each and every role among the family and friends, congregation and business associates, is expertly cast (kudos to Stephanie Klapper), with all of the actors not only looking the parts, but fully inhabiting the characters, capturing the right British accents and demeanors, and delivering the divergent viewpoints that Baker has defined with empathy and clarity of thought and emotion.
Under Bank’s well-paced direction, the excellent cast brings a perfect balance of controlled drama and subtle humor to the interactions and conflicts inherent in Baker’s story. Donald Corren stars in the titular role of the devout Christian protagonist, wavering between his wish to unload the failing shop, the temptation to take the money that would afford him and his family a better life, and the inflexible outdated beliefs that trigger pangs of guilt, sinfulness, and accountability. His feelings range from concern to excitement, then to consternation, resolve, and relief, all readily legible in his mien, and in the hymns he cheerfully sings, or doesn’t, as his inner thoughts change and his mind is set. In her featured role as Scott’s daughter Annie, the glowing Emma Geer, too, displays a compelling three-dimensionality and transition of moods, bringing to life the young woman’s dissatisfaction, dreams, disappointment, and acceptance, as does Nick LaMedica as her brother Len, whose youthful outbursts of emotion reveal his distress, joy, and frustration. And Tracy Sallows as Mrs. Scott is the epitome of the dutiful wife, remaining silent, casting her eyes downward, or quietly shedding tears in times of disagreement and dismay, rather than challenge her husband’s unilateral authority.
Other standouts in the supporting cast include Mitchell Greenberg, who sparkles as the potential buyer Wicksteed – a gentleman who clearly enjoys life, embraces the changing values of his time, and is critical of Scott’s clinging to the old order (“What a fool!”), and Mark Kenneth Smaltz as George Rufford, the Scotts’ affable neighbor, who is likewise more accepting of social advances, more lenient with his own daughter May (Ayana Workman), and equally confused by the unyielding attitude of his friend (“You draw your line too hard . . . You are a hard man, Tom Scott”). Rounding out the across-the-board terrific company are Andrew Fallaize, Josh Goulding, Jay Russell, and Arielle Yoder, each completely natural in the speech patterns, timing, and characterizations.
The outstanding artistic design creates a believable ambience for the story and situations. Modest period-style furnishings and well-observed details, from the hat boxes to the book of music on the old-fashioned upright piano (set by Vicki R. Davis and props by Chris Fields), spot-on musical selections from the era (sound design and musical arrangements by Jane Shaw), and impeccably finished well-fitted costumes and lavishly decorated millinery (costumes by Hunter Kazcorowski) all serve to transport us to the specific time and place in which the play is set. Key episodes, most notably of the ensemble dances, are punctuated with dramatic lighting by Christian DeAngelis, and Tracy Bersley’s old-time choreography shifts from appropriately awkward to increasingly accomplished to ultimately ebullient, in keeping with the flow of history and its lessening constraints.
Mint Theater Company’s series on “Meet Miss Baker” is off to a fine start with The Price of Thomas Scott. It’s a production that is both historically authentic and ever-relevant, skillfully written, intelligently debated, and engagingly presented.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.