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A CurtainUp Review
The Skin Game
Although Galsworthy authored 20 novels, his plays numbered 27, most of which are now committed to library shelves rather than to the contemporary stage. Praise to the Mint Theater Company, known for its resurrections of worthy classical dramatic literature, for producing with consummate care and affection one of the author’s grievously neglected plays, The Skin Game.
This thoroughly absorbing, if occasionally quaint, play resonates with the author’s bitter social conscience. It avoids being preachy and handily succeeds as a good yarn well told. Under Eleanor Reissa’s embracing direction the acting company seems to be having a ripping time with the bloody good melodramatics and with the literate if talky text it serves.
Although the play’s concerns and issues are as British as a dish of clotted cream, the plot will strike many as familiar in allegorical terms. It involves the hostilities and animosities that exist and mushroom out of control between two rival families whose estates abut each other in the English countryside. The natural condescension of the gentry versus the boorish arrogance of the newly rich is at the heart of the play. Hillcrist (John C. Vennema), the proud, stodgy patriarch of the venerable clan is shocked to learn that the old Jackmans (Carl Palmer and Pat Nesbit), poor tenants on a small strip of land formerly owned by his family, have been given an eviction notice by the new owner Hornblower (James Gale).
Apparently Hillcrist had a gentleman’s agreement with Hornblower to allow the Jackmans to remain in the home they have occupied for generations. Hornblower, a crass, crude and unscrupulous bloke who exhibits no regard for the agreement or any concern or regard for the Jackmans' future, makes no bones about his disdain for Hillcrist and all that he stands for. He also has no qualms about the effect his new smoke-belching factories are having on the neighborhood. His new objective is to outbid Hillcrist in the purchase of an adjoining property.
While Hillcrist is mortified and flummoxed by Hornblower’s aggressive tactics, his wife Amy (Monique Fowler) is quietly gearing up for battle. Patrician and snobby to the extreme, she is prepared to be just as ruthless as Hornblower. This, in the face of her husband’s reluctance, not to mention his sense of good breeding and sportsmanship. Her weapon is to dredge up a scandal with the help of their ethically challenged family agent Dawker (Stephen Rowe). It involves Chloe (Diana LaMar), the pregnant wife of Hornblower’s eldest son Charles (Leo Kittay). A brewing romance between Hillcrist’s daughter Jill (Nicole Lowrance) and Hornblower’s youngest son Rolf (Denis Butkus) becomes expectedly conflicted as the heat of the two families grows into a class-defining inferno.
As Hillcrist, Vennema’s stiff-necked countenance is perfectly balanced against Gale’s rough-hewn and callous demeanor, as Hornblower. Fowler has her fine moments but seems a little non-plussed by the subtle demands of her role as the power behind the throne. However, she looks quite grand enough and, for those who relish old movies, more than a bit, like Ann Harding. LaMar has the juiciest role as the threatened Chloe, and has a field day putting on an act for her husband and in-laws, as well as for our amusement. As Jill, Lowrance breezes gainfully through the intrigue and mayhem by either affirming her alliances or disregarding them at will. It is ironically through her that we get the clearest understanding of how class will out.
The tragedy of the rivalry between these two families is that it leads to the compromising of one family’s moral and ethical standards while fueling and empowering the hatred of the other. Hillcrest realizes too late that "He who touches pitch shall be defiled," and is left sadly asking himself, "What’s a man worth if he can’t stand fire."
Vicki R. Davis’s settings for the Hillcrist study, Chloe’s boudoir and an auction room are executed smoothly and with a minimum of fuss and finery. Under Traci Klainer’s fine lighting, costumer Tracy Christensen’s period fashions take class distinction to heart.
Although Justice (1910) which is credited with bringing about prison reform in England is Galsworthy's most famous play, , this fine production of The Skin Game could easily bring about a renewal of interest in the entire Galsworthy dramatic canon.
The Skin Game was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1931 with Edmund Gwenn, John Longden and Jill Esmond but was labeled stiff and is not considered one of Hitchcock’ gems. That is happily not true of this estimable staging of the play by the Mint.
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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