Theater review by Melissa Rose Bernardo
Give the Mint Theater Company an uncut gem—an obscure work by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, A.A. Milne, or, in this case, D.H. Lawrence—and they’ll buff it into something precious: a multifaceted theatrical heirloom to be treasured for years to come. Now, for the second time in its three-decade history, the Mint is mounting Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law, a dense, class-conscious drama that is by all accounts the best of the novelist’s eight rarely produced plays.
The East Midlands dialect is thick, and even those with an ear for accents might have difficulty understanding all the dialogue—though the actors, especially the women, handle it well. As soon as you’re seated at New York City Center’s intimate Stage II, scan the program notes to pick up a few handy terms: a “blackleg” is a strikebreaker; “day men” are the miners who work in teams; “orts and slarts” are leftovers; “clat-fart” is gossip. (Drop that one at your next cocktail party!)
The plot is set against the backdrop of England’s Coal Strike of 1912. Mrs. Gascoyne (Sandra Shipley, impressive in a rather unsympathetic role) has two miner sons whom she “mards” (i.e., spoils): the pouty Joe (Ciaran Bowling) and the glowering Luther (an over-the-top Tom Coiner). Much to her dismay, Luther has recently married Minnie (a wonderful Amy Blackman), a former governess with supposedly questionable taste in furnishings—and a nest egg that exceeds her husband’s annual salary. Before we get a chance to meet this much-maligned daughter-in-law, however, we learn that Luther has knocked up a local girl; “she’s simple, but she’s good natured,” according to her mother, Mrs. Purdy (Polly McKie). Despite Joe’s best efforts to keep his brother’s indiscretion under wraps, the sordid details eventually spill out.
Minnie, as it turns out, is actually an impressive, well-spoken, independent-minded woman who keeps a lovely home (though she strangely leaves bits of broken dishes on the floor for the better part of two scenes). She even buys her own diamond and her own ring. “I’m too good for you,” she tells Luther in the middle of a row, but she’s not being what Mrs. Gascoyne would call hoity-toity; she’s simply having a moment of clarity. And she stands up to her smothering mother-in-law when she needs to: “You held him, and persuaded him that what he wanted was you.”
Directed by Martin Platt, who also helmed the company’s 2003 production, The Daughter-in-Law isn’t—to use more Lawrence lingo—a “bobby-dazzler” of a play. But the Mint has cleaned it up nicely. It wears well.
The Daughter-in-Law. New York City Center Stage II (Off Broadway). By D.H. Lawrence. Directed by Martin Platt. With Amy Blackman, Sandra Shipley, Tom Coiner, Ciaran Bowling. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.