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A Little Journey
By Elyse Sommer
Rachel Crothers (1878-1958) may not be a name to ring a bell with modern day theater goers but in her day she was a succesful playwright and director. A Little Journey, had a very healthy 252 performance run during the 1918-1919 Broadway season and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee. But except for Shakespeare, Chekhov, Wilde, Shaw and a few other vintage scribes whose names and works are kept alive with umpteen revivals, even a stellar author's work often ends up gathering cobwebs in rarely visited theatrical archives. Of course, those archives are exactly where the Mint's artistic director Jonathan Bank likes to rummage around for another play to dust off and present to the Mint's many fans.
Actually, the Mint did another Crothers play, Susan and God, five years ago. It was also a handsome production with a sizeable cast, but not as large as this latest offeringg which is also big on nostalgia. In this case that means re-experiencing travel in the once popular Pullman sleepers that declined during the Great Depression and ceased operating altogether in 1968. While they lasted, those trains were favorite settings for books, plays and films.
The train on which A Little Journey plays out is Pacific Coast bound with New York the get-on point. The plot centers on a romance triggered by leading lady Julie Rutherford's lost ticket. Since she's leaving New York to live with her brother in Montana because her suddenly impoveriched rich aunt could no longer offer her a home and the man she loved couldn't afford to marry her. It will hardly come as a surprise that she doesn't have the $92.50 to buy another ticket. Nor is it surprising that Jim West, the attractive man in a nearby compartment saves her from being ousted from the train.
In the course of the four-day journey, there's time to get to know not just Julie and Jim, but the other passengers. But the central story is that of a young woman reminiscent of Lily Barth in Edith Wharton's novel House of Mirth, who is overwhelmed by the prospect of an uncertain future when a random act of kindness raises the possibility for a life changing as well as a mileage spanning journey.
Yes, there's a big bang climax that indulges in excessive sentimentality and melodrama. It's all pretty much as predictable as it sounds, and Jim West is almost too good to be true. But then who can resist an old-fashioned simple hero, shades of one of those black and white movies starring Jimmy Stewart that turn up on the Turner network. Besides with the lovely Samantha Soule as Julie Rutherford and McCaleb Burnett as the life and soul saving hero, these characters endearing enough to make watching them fun and, ultimately irresistibly moving.
Among the more memorably portrayed characters rounding out Crothers' group portrait Jennifer Blood' as Annie, a fragile, single mother and her baby; (Laurie Birmingham's amusing Mrs. Welch, a snobbish New York matron who only returns to her small town roots for brief visits to her mother; Mrs. Bay (Rosemary Prinz's delightfully frisky happy to be going home to her town after a visit to New York and Chet Siegel as her eager for life and romance granddaughter Lily.
Characters like Kitty Van Dyck (Victoria Mack) and Ethel Halstead (Joey Parsons), the two friends who come aboard just long enough to see Lily off are there strictly to fill us in on some details about the life Lily is leaving. The same is true of the quick arrival and departure of her selfish New York boyfriend Alfred Bemis (John Wernke) Given today's economy-conscious practice of double casting bit parts like this the fleeting appearances of these characters without their reappearing in different roles adds to the sense of revisiting another world — much like the train itself and the African-American porter who's at everyone's beck and call for a monthly wage of $40.
Fun as it is to watch so many of the passengers on this journey and have several of them upend the impressions given during that overcooked traumatic finale, all these mini-dramas do tend to make for a rather slow-paced first act that will make some viewers wish the Mint productions would follow the more general practice of conflating three acts into two with just one intermission. Still, the playwright and director Jackson Gay have used all the actors well to deepen and clarify the main conflict between Julie Rutherford's philosphy of what makes life worth living and Jim West's worthy if somewhat preachy one.
Julie and Jim's philosophic differences become a sort of romantic debate. He tells her how he too was lost and desperate when he first went West and found peace by running a sort of tough love work camp for men in similar straits in order to to talk her into a more positive mindset towards her new life: but Julie sticks to her guns. Clearly it's going to take more than words to make her embrace the life that fate has sent her way, and for this strangers on a train encounter to become more than transitory. I'll leave it to you to find out if Crothers' slam-bang third act does the trick.
To take us into every compartment of that Pullman sleeper, set designer Roger Hanna has cleverly used a carousel concept. His final act hilltop setting creates just the right mood. Martha Hally's period-perfect costumes, Paul Wintaker's lighting and Jane Shaw's sound design add to the pleasures of this journey into a forever gone world and playwriting style. The as always informative program notes help to put the work being presented into historical perspective.
Note: This production also marks the Mint's focus on women writers. It was preceded by Teresa Deevy's Wife to James Whelan and will be followed in August by another Deevy play, Temporal Powers.