Before she authored the novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith wrote a play about the same character, Francie Nolan. Smith’s novel, which follows Francie from young girlhood to the cusp of 17, was published in 1943 to great acclaim and lasting success. “Becomes A Woman,” which Smith wrote in 1931 and dramatizes Francie’s life starting at age 19, has never been produced…until now, 92 years later.
The Mint Theater Company, which for three decades has been in the theatrical salvaging business, has done its usual impressive job of researching, casting and costuming this show, with a set that fits the script, despite the small stage and smaller budget . The essays in the program, which always provide important context, are especially fascinating here, because it turns out that Smith more than anything wanted to be a playwright.
She wrote seventy plays, mostly one-acts, and studied playwriting as a non-matriculated student at three universities – at the University of Michigan (where one of her teachers, Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, later taught Arthur Miller), at Yale (where one of her classmates, Elia Kazan, would later direct the movie adaptation of her best-known novel), and at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (where she was hired by the Federal Theater Project to write plays and edit anthologies, one of which included one of Tennessee Williams’ earliest plays, “At Liberty.”)
None of her plays achieved the success of her novels, but some did win awards, including“Becomes A Woman.” It’s unclear why it was never produced. Dramaturg Maya Cantu in the Mint program suggests that its themes were too “socially transgressive” for the era. This is hard for me to buy given that 1931 marked the Broadway debut of Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” a modern take on the Greek tragedy the Oresteia featuring murder, adultery, incestuous love, and revenge. Would you argue that O’Neill was already famous by then, and a man? Well then, what about Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” on Broadway in 1928, which told the true story of an adulterous woman who murdered her husband and was electrocuted.
I can’t know the reason why “Becomes A Woman” was never produced. At this point, the play is of greater historical than aesthetic interest, but there are almost enough good lines, and subtle wit, as well as an intriguing proto-feminist sensibility, to compensate for the parts that are stilted, predictable, and dated.
The Francie of the play and the novel aren’t precisely the same — their family and their work history differ in some details, and the novel is more obviously autobiographical.
At the start of the play, Francie (Emma Pfitzer Price) is working as a singing sales clerk at the sheet music counter of Kress Dime Store, where she fends off a steady stream of fresh young male customers who press her for a date. She vows never to fall for any of them, and never to have children. Her co-workers believe this is out of fear rather than independence; they describe her “afraid of her family, afraid of the boss, afraid to make a date.” In any case, she abruptly drops her resolutions when Leonard Press Jr. (Peterson Townsend), the boss’s son, enters the store, with his spats and his cane and his charming ways.
“Aside from the fact that his pants are pressed, I can’t see that he’s any different from anyone else,” sassy older co-worker Florry (Pearl Rhein) warns Francie.
“He’s different, I tell you,” Francie answers. “He’s different from my father … from Jimmy O’Neill…. [the boy who’s been trying to court her.]. I don’t care what you say, Florry, there are other kind of men in the world.”
“Sure,” Florry retorts. “But you have to pay a half a dollar to see them in the movies.”
But Francie doesn’t listen, and we see where that leads in Act II three months later, when she brings Kress to meet her family. The early moments with her Pa, her Ma, and her two younger brothers feel most reminiscent of the familial scenes she wrote in her novel twelve years later. Pa Nolan is a bit of a blowhard whose lack of self-awareness feels comic for a time as does the family’s awkwardness with this wealthy stranger. (It is to Jeb Brown’s credit that he doesn’t play Pa for laughs.) But the scene soon changes tone. Pa has just talked unbidden about how good he is as a police officer, how everybody likes him, how he treats even the prostitutes with compassion, when Francie announces that she and Mr. Kress are getting married.
Ma Nolan (Antoinette LaVecchia) gets to the heart of the matter: “Do you have to get married?”
Francie is silent. Ma is devastated. Pa is infuriated; kicking her out of the house for being a fallen woman and forcing Kress to marry her, through threats of violence and blackmail.
If the scene is overly familiar, it soon departs somewhat from the standard melodrama, when Francie, realizing that Kress doesn’t want to marry her, begs her father to stop trying to make him do so. He doesn’t listen.
Act III occurs eight months later, after the baby is born, and I won’t give details about what to me feels like an unlikely sequence of events, which end up with Francie asserting her independence. I’ll only specify one passage, because it’s outside the central action and an example of the offbeat humor in the play. Francie has remained friends with Tessie (Gina Daniels), one of her former coworkers, and with Tessie’s beau Max, who drives an ambulance. She confesses to Francie that they are going to get married
Tessie: I know it seems that I made up my mind in an awful hurry. But then I always did want to marry a doctor.
Francie: But Max isn’t a doctor
Tessie: I know. But he smells like one and I only wanted to marry a doctor because I like that smell.
As for Francie, thanks to her bitter experiences, she gains courage and…well…the title of the play. Her newfound courage leads her to actions that are dramatic, inspiring even, but feel unrealistic, even reckless, for someone who grew up in poverty. Francie doesn’t just become a woman. She becomes like a heroine in one of the movies Florry was talking about.
Becomes A Woman
Mint Theater at New York City Center Stage II through March 1
Written by Betty Smith
Directed by Britt Berke
Running time: two and a half hours with two intermissions.
Tickets: $49 to $90
Sets by Vicki R. Davis, costume by Emilee McVey-Lee, lights by M.L. Geiger, sound and original music by M. Florian Staab, props by Chris Fields, dialects and dramaturgy by Amy StollerIntimacy & Fight Direction by Cha Ramos
Cast: Emma Pfitzer Price as Francie Nolan, Duane Boutté, Christopher Reed Brown, Jeb Brown
Gina Daniels, Antoinette LaVecchia, Jack Mastrianni, Jason O’Connell, Scott Redmond, Pearl Rhein, Madeline Seidman, Phillip Taratula, Peterson Townsend, Tim Webb