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A CurtainUp Review
Rutherford & Son
By Elyse Sommer
And so, it has once again been left to Jonathan Bank and his invaluable Mint Theater Company to introduce New York theater goers to Rutherford & Son. He and director Richard Corley have done so with a handsomely staged, intelligently directed and well cast production.
Robert Hogan, who several seaSon back made a strong impact on me when he played Clarence Darrow in Never the Sinner (our review), reinforces that memory with his portrayal of the ruthless head of the glassmaking factory bearing hisname, a second generation family business that has elevated the working class Rutherfords to the middle rung of the social ladder. Hogan invests his tycoon with nuances that allow us see the forces that have made him an unloving and unlovable despot in his home as well as at his factory, especially in the final scene. There are even a few rare glimpses of humor lurking beneath the relentless determination to keep the imperiled glass works from falling victim to changing trends.
The play explores a familiar basic premise — the struggle between a rigid, powerful father and children yearning for the freedom to work and live their own way. The characters engaged in this struggle, the business ethics and survival issues that come into play give Rutherford & Son the same sort of relevance as the Mint's biggest "hit", Harley Granville-Barker's The Voysey Inheritance (our review).
Tom Story, Tom Ford and Jurian Hughes vividly render Rutherford's emotionally neglected offspring -- John, Richard and Janet -- as does Mikel Sarah Lambert as their crusty, resigned-to-the-Rutherford ways, Aunt Ann. John is the anointed but un-empowered heir. He was sent to Harrow to "become a gentleman", only to marry a working girl who has only been allowed into the family home since giving birth to another male Rutherford.
Viewed through their father's harsh eyes, Richard, a cleric, and Janet, a spinster who today would be described as a woman whose biological clock is ticking at double speed, both need never have been born. He has little respect for Richard's vocation as a cleric and feels Janet's only worth is as an unpaid domestic.
In the three days during which the story unfolds the struggle between the two generations is brought to a head by John's demand to be properly remunerated for a process he has invented and which his father's right-hand man Martin (David VanPelt) has helped him transform into a workable process. The elder Rutherford typically dismisses John's idea. When he realizes that it may be the something new that is desperately needed to keep the embattled factory profitable but John still refuses to reveal the formula, Rutherford takes advantage of Martin's loyalty to browbeat him into revealing the invention's details.
Martin's slave-like devotion does not prevent the man he has regarded as a father and savior from turning against him when he discovers that he has been his daughter Janet's secret lover. Ever protective of his hard-won entry into the middle class, Rutherford has no use for a servant who forgets his place (the same place from which the Rutherfords rose). Without a second thought he fires Martin and orders Janet out of the house. The fact that the Martin-Janice relationship is revealed to Rutherford by the gentle Richard underscores what may well be the greatest tragedy of this play: the fact that as a result of their loveless upbringing these brothers and their sisters have come not only to hate their father but have lost all sense of sibling loyalty or affection.
While the three Rutherford children all get their chance to let the old despot know their true feelings, it is the outsider —John's wife Mary — who knows exactly what she wants and strikes a compromise that may save her son from being crushed by the aging tyrant. Sioux Madden, a Mint regular, brings dignity and conviction to the soft-spoken but hardheaded mother protecting her cub. A scene with another mother, this one pleading for a second chance for her son who has been fired for petty theft, while well-acted by Dales Soules, goes on rather too long, stretching one's patience with the leisurely pace typical of the dramas of this era.
Vicki Davis, who also designed The Voysey Inheritance , has once again created a warm and apt setting that seems to expand the small stage. Charlotte Palmer-Lane's costumes are true to the period. The sound design by Ellen Mandel and cinematic lighting by Jeff Nellis further add to the strong production values.
Like all Mint productions this is a limited run and at under $20 a ticket, one of the best values in town.