“The Price of Thomas Scott,” Elizabeth Baker’s play about a small shop owner struggling with his conscience, marks the launching of the Mint Theater’s ambitious “Meet Miss Baker” series. With a plan for three full productions, numerous staged readings and a publication of her scripts, the theater company is devoting the next couple of years to Elizabeth Baker, a largely forgotten English playwright whose plays focused on working women and their navigation through the constraints of class, gender, and social convention. Given that her first and most successful plays were produced starting in 1910, Baker sounds remarkably ahead of her time.
The Mint’s choice to introduce this project, “The Price of Thomas Scott,” might indeed have been greeted as forward-looking in 1913 – the year it was last produced on any stage until now. But, for all the playwright’s thought-provoking explorations and the Mint’s as usual first-rate production, the play is dated in a way that hampers its effectiveness.
Thomas Scott (Donald Corren) is a general draper (a person who sells cloth and dry goods) whose shop is in decline– as are most of the shops in the area. The lack of money has squashed the dreams of each member of his family: His wife Ellen (Tacy Sallows) would like a house in the country; his teenage son Leonard (Nick LaMedica) would like to go to a good school and enter the civil service, but must work instead in his father’s shop; and, above all, his daughter Annie (Emma Geer) would like to go to Paris, and become a high-class milliner. An old acquaintance, Wicksteed (Mitch Greenberg), materializes like a savior, and offers Thomas the then-enormous sum of 500 pounds for his shop – which would solve the family’s problems, and makes his wife and children greatly relieved and happy. But it creates a new problem for Thomas.
Wicksteed works for a company that runs dance halls, and wants to turn the Scott property into the latest one. These are respectable establishments, in which the ladies are chaperoned and there’s no drinking allowed on the premises. And of course once Thomas sells his shop, he will have no further connection with the property. But Thomas is a strict Christian who is opposed to dancing, seeing it as the devil’s work. He is also opposed to beer-drinking, and to theater.
“But, Mr. Scott, “ says Johnny (Andrew Fallaize) the Scott’s lodger, “the theater isn’t what you think it. Have you ever been, now?”
“No, and never mean to, either,” Thomas answers. “I can read about it, young man, and I know what people have told me. It holds out temptation to the weak, and it is the duty of the Church to strengthen…”
Given that this line is written by a playwright and recited by an actor in the theater, one might suppose that Thomas is being held up to ridicule. But ultimately, the play takes seriously his rejection of theatergoing, drinking and dancing, as a matter of his conscience.
In a director’s note, Jonathan Bank tells us that “The Price of Thomas Scott” “poses big questions,” such as (taking lines from the play) “What is the difference between a good strong prejudice and a conviction?”, “How far should conscience take you?” and “Can a conscience be overindulged, or spoilt?” — and then says the playwright “leaves us to answer these questions.”
It is intriguing when the playwright lays out the chain reaction of consequences that result from Thomas’ single compromise with his conscience. To pick the biggest example: After the offer is made and Wicksteed gives him a down payment, Thomas feels he cannot forbid his daughter from attending a dance (“pandering to the lusts of men, showing herself off in shamelessness”) because then he would be a hypocrite.
But it’s difficult for the modern theatergoer to empathize with Thomas Scott’s dilemma when it seems so out of step with common sense. Or, if you object to my speaking on behalf of all theatergoers and pretending to be objective: It’s hard for me to feel fully engaged in a play in which I’m supposed to identify with somebody who is so narrow-minded. What Thomas (and the play) calls conscience I have trouble seeing as anything but bullying at the expense of his family.
There is one other way the play shows its age. The cast is made up of 11 performers; most of the characters feel unnecessary and, although the production is only 90 minutes long, it takes too long to get to the point of the play, Thomas’s struggle with his conscience. A playwright writing today would surely set up this same situation with three or four characters.
Still, one can’t dismiss a production that’s acted and designed so well (and with a terrifically choreographed curtain call.) It’s best to appreciate “The Price of Thomas Scott” as an archeological dig – what people liked and were like in 1913. There are even some terrific artifacts (presumably re-created by costume designer Hunter Kaczorowski) – Annie’s fabulous, sky-high hats.
The Price of Thomas Scott
Mint at Theatre Row
Written by Elizabeth Baker
Directed by Jonathan Bank. Sets by Vicki R. Davis. Costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski, lights by Christian Deangelis, sound and musical arrangements by Jane Shaw, choreography by Tracy Bersley, dialects and dramaturgy by Amy Stoller
Cast: Donald Corren, Andrew Fallaize, Emma Geer, Josh Goulding, Mitchell Greenberg, Nick LaMedica, Jay Russell, Tracy Sallows, Mark Kenneth Smaltz, Ayana Workman, and Arielle Yoder
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The Price of Thomas Scott is on stage through March 23, 2019