While D.H. Lawrence was working on “Sons and Lovers,” his most popular novel, he wrote “The Daughter-in-Law,” the first of his eight plays, which (unlike his novels) was neither published nor produced during his lifetime. Gritty, odd, oddly gripping, sometimes subtly comic and often impenetrable, it is set in 1912, during the first national strike by coal miners in the United Kingdom, and focuses on a coal miner named Luther, his bossy mother Mrs. Gascoyne, and his new wife Minnie, an ex-governess, who doesn’t seem to like her husband at all: “You’re not a man, you’re not. You’re something crawling,”
The Mint Theater Company, justly celebrated for bringing neglected old plays back to life, reportedly had great success when it produced Lawrence’s play in 2003. Now, “The Daughter-In-Law” returns, in a production that is uniformly and manifestly well-acted, and effectively designed — but, at the same time, for me at least, a little too authentic.
The characters in the play live in Eastwood, a town in the coal-mining district in England where Lawrence had grown up, the son of a miner; they speak a dialect (which the Mint tells us is called “ilson”) that’s hard to decipher even on the printed page. Sample:
Mrs. Gascoyne: I niver ’eered such talk i’ my life.
Joe: I dunna care what ter’s ’eered an’ what t’asna. I wor foolin’ wi’ a wringer an’ a pick-heft, ta’e it as ter’s a mind.
The Mint program provides a full-page glossary, which is in itself entertaining — “clat-fart” means gossip – but not much help. The actors render the dialogue in accents that are no doubt impressive in their fidelity, but make much of what’s said unintelligible.
Yet there were three pivotal moments in the production that – whether coincidentally, intentionally, or miraculously – I found crystal clear, and compelling. In the long opening scene, which takes place between Luther’s mother Mrs. Gascoyne (Sandra Shipley), Luther’s younger son Joe (Ciaran Bowling), and a neighbor Mrs. Purdy (Polly McKie) who drops by to visit, we learn that Luther had sex with Mrs. Purdy’s daughter Bertha, shortly before marrying Minnie, and now “my gal gone four month wi’ childt to your Luther.”
In the next scene, although they have only been married six weeks, the tension between Luther (Tom Coiner) and Minnie (Amy Blackman) is evident even before they learn of the baby bombshell, and even if you don’t understand every word (of Luther’s. Minnie, more educated and more ambitious, doesn’t speak in the regional dialect.) But there’s a moment when Minnie drops her invective, and turns vulnerable:
“What did you marry me for? “ Minnie asks.
“Cos tha axed me,” Luther replies.
“Did you never care for me?”
Luther is silent.
The final moment of clarity comes at the very end, again between Luther and Minnie. If their interaction seems overly optimistic, considering all that has preceded it, there’s such emotional force in it – aided by the acting – that it shines new light on the point of the play. Lawrence is exploring conflicts based on both class and gender, making brilliant if only briefly flickering parallels between the domestic and the political. And, if like me, you couldn’t follow every word, you can look at the script (readily available online) and discover that he’s doing it with humor. “Marriage is like a mouse trap, for either man or woman,” Mrs. Gascoyne says at one point. “You’ve soon come ter th’ end o’ th’ cheese.”
It came as an epiphany to me that much of the conflict between the characters is based on misunderstanding rooted in class, and manifested by their differing way with words. Maybe, for that reason, the Mint was right to be so exacting with the accents. But perhaps they could also have taken a page from opera, and provided not just a glossary but a scene-by-scene synopsis.
Mint Theater at New York City Center through March 20, 2022
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $35 – $65
Directed by Martin Platt, sets by Bill Clarke, costumes by Holly Poe Durbin, lights by Jeff Nellis, sound by Lindsay Jone,s props by Joshua Yocum, dialects and dramaturgy by Amy Stoller
Cast: Amy Blackman, Ciaran Bowling, Tom Coiner, Katie Fanning, Polly McKie, Sandra Shipley, Tina Stafford
“Air Play,” an hour-long wordless flight of imagination at New Victory Theater through March 6, by Acrobuffos (which is to say the clown duo Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone) uses nothing but balloons, feathers, silk sheets, electrical fans of assorted sizes, and their considerable whimsy to prove: You don’t always need words.