Rutherford & Son
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 24, 2012
Githa Sowerby caused a major cultural sensation when, in 1912, London’s Royal Court Theatre produced Rutherford & Son, her first play. Not only was the work greeted with universal acclaim, but with shock; shock at the fact that a first play could be so accomplished, and shock when the author, who wrote under the pseudonym K.G. Sowerby, was eventually discovered to be a woman.
Rutherford & Son, which one London critic called “One of the very best, strongest, deftest, and altogether most masterly family dramas that we have had for a long time…” was believed to be lost to the ages until the 1980s and 1990s when, rediscovered, it started to be seen again. The National Theater, which produced Sowerby’s work in 1994, later included it on their list of the One Hundred Plays of the (last) Century. The Mint Theater Company brought the play back to America in September, 2001, when a fairly well-received revival opened; however it was overshadowed, as most NYC theater was that fall, by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A decade later, the Mint, the great theatrical repository of previously lost and/or unknown works, has revived Richard Corley’s handsome production, reuniting a handful of cast members from the 2001 staging, as well. One can divide the eight-member cast in half, those who mine the material for every little bit, and those who are left struggling. The result is a very uneven evening, alternately thrilling and tedious, but when it’s on fire, it burns.
The play centers on John Rutherford (Robert Hogan), the seemingly tyrannical proprietor of a glassworks factory in the north of England, more concerned about money and legacy than the discord within his family. But the family-run business is floundering, and future success depends on Rutherford’s adoption of a new process created by his son, young John (Eli James), a foppish fellow who wants to be paid for his secret recipe. There are other characters with just as juicy plot machinations: Janet (Sara Surrey), his spinster daughter who has been carrying on an affair with Martin (David Van Pelt), the factory manager; Richard (James Patrick Nelson), Rutherford’s priest son who is attempting to leave; Mary (Allison McLemore), young John’s wife and the mother of his child, forced to live in a household where she isn’t welcome; and Mrs. Henderson (Dale Soules) the potentially alcoholic mother of a worker in the factory who Rutherford believes was stealing.
James, Nelson, and McLemore have trouble finding their footing, and as a result the balance falls off, especially compared to Hogan, Soules, and Van Pelt, who first created these roles ten years ago, and find all of the juice in their roles. The only newcomer who quite gets it right is Surrey, who sets the roof ablaze at the end of the second act (the production is divided into three acts, with two intermissions) with an absolutely scalding monologue. The always reliable Sandra Shipley completes the cast as Rutherford’s sister.
The handsome production, which runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, features a stately set by Vicki R. Davis, sumptuous costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, and crisp lighting by Nicole Pearce. Corley could afford to pick up the pacing, and perhaps needed a stronger hand when the characters were developing. Still, Rutherford & Son provides a fascinating early look at a theme we’ve come to know so well: the modern dysfunctional family.