Lillian Hellman herself described “Days to Come,” her 1936 play about labor strife and family conflict, as “an absolute horror of a failure.” She wrote it two years after her first Broadway play “The Children’s Hour” made her rich and famous, but this second one ran for just seven performances.
The Mint Theater revival of “Days to Come,” with the company’s usual fine acting and first-rate production values, doesn’t make a convincing case that the initial audience was shortsighted, nor that the play was somehow before its time. But if it is not an overlooked masterpiece, the ensuing decades have turned “Days to Come” into an intriguing glimpse into the era in which it was written, and something of a preview of the Hellman plays to come — particularly “The Little Foxes,” which she wrote three years later and for which she is best known and most admired.
Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull) is the third-generation owner of a brush factory in Callom, Ohio, a (fictional) town located 200 miles from Cleveland. Unable to make ends meet, Andrew felt forced to cut wages for his employees, many of whom, such as Thomas Firth (Chris Henry Coffey) have worked in the factory their entire adult lives, and consider Andrew a friend. But because they can’t survive on their reduced wages, they’ve been on strike for three weeks, calling in Leo Whalen (Roderick Hill), a union organizer, to aid them. In response, at the urging of his attorney Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy), Andrew has hired a group of out-of-town strikebreakers, led by the wily Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily.)
Given Hellman’s well-publicized politics at the time, it’s no surprise that Leo Whalen the union organizer is an appealing and sympathetic character. But the playwright paints Andrew just as sympathetically; a well-meaning, decent if weak man (reminiscent of Horace Giddens in The Little Foxes), who’s caught in a bind, and manipulated by others. But to win our sympathies, Hellman made Andrew unrealistically naïve. He hires the strikebreakers under the mistaken belief that they are simply factory workers who will make the company’s brushes during the strike.
The three we see are manifestly thugs – palookas who talk like goons; one even constantly cracks his knuckles. Wilkie, the smooth instigator, plans to provoke the striking townsfolk into violence, so that they can respond in kind. But Whalen has been training the strikers to avoid violence at all cost, no matter what the provocation, much to Wilkie’s frustration. “There hasn’t even been a nose bleed for me to stop,” he complains. “I can’t work with nothing.” So they sit around playing cards.
These scenes should play more humorously than they do, but the out-of-towners do exhibit a kind of crackling streetwise dialogue similar to what Hellman used to better effect the following year when she wrote the screenplay for “Dead End,” the movie (adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s play) that starred tough guy Humphrey Bogart and launched the careers of the Bowery Boys.
Intertwined with the story of the strike is a portrait of the Rodman family. This includes Andrew’s sister Cora (Mary Bacon, portraying a character as anxious as Birdie in “The Little Foxes,” but close to the viciousness of Regina.) But the focus is on Andrew’s wife Julie (Janie Brookshire.) Julie is not in love with Andrew, although the character is not fleshed out enough for us to learn why (nor why she married him in the first place, nor why she stays with him.) We do learn that she had (and may be continuing to be having) an affair with Ellicott, Andrew’s evil lawyer, and that she wants an affair with Leo Whalen, the labor organizer. She also goes on long walks alone in the rain. The dialogue between her and her husband is so different from the crisp patter of the street savvy labor antagonists that it almost feels like parody:
Julie: “We belonged to the time when talk was part of the marriage
ceremony. Such cynical, smooth talk, about marriage and life and freedom. Not you. Me, I mean.”
Andrew: “I suppose. I remember I used to be a little puzzled by it. But that’s what we were then. You always hate yesterday, don’t you, Julie?”
At one point, Ellicott says to Julie: “Your walks take you in all directions, don’t they? “ The same could almost be said of Lillian Hellman, who ends “Days to Come” with an abrupt and contrived convergence of the disparate conflicts – between workers and owner, between labor organizer and management goons, between members of the Rodman family – with what feels like short-shrift to all three.
Some have argued that Hellman’s divided focus in “Days to Come” is meant to show us the connection between private morality and public policy. This sounds right to me. Indeed, for all its structural flaws, the play is replete with issues that still resonate, in one form or another. While witnessing the dilemma between the two old friends in a small Ohio town, the factory owner and the worker, I couldn’t help thinking about how our current day political polarization has threatened the relationships of old friends and family, in Ohio, and everywhere else.
Days to Come
Mint Theater at Theater Row
Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by J.R.Sullivan
Sets by Harry Feiner, costumes by Andrea Varga, lights by Christian DeAngelis, sound by Jane Shaw
Cast: Mary Bacon as Cora, Janie Brookshire as Julie, Larry Bull as Andrew Rodman, Chris Henry Coffey as Firth, Dan Daily as Wilkie, Ted Deasy as Ellicott, Roderick Hill as Leo Whalen, Betsy Hogg as Lucy, Kim Martin-Cotton as Hannah, Geoffrey Allen Murphy as Mossie, Evan Zes as Joe Easter.
Running time: 2 hours including one intermission
“Days to Come” is on stage through October 6, 2018