Virtually every production produced by Off-Broadway’s Mint Theater Company is worth checking out – at least by the dedicated theatergoer who appreciates well-acted, low-budget but handsome productions of long-lost plays (mostly from around the turn of the century) by long-forgotten playwrights (mostly English, Irish and American). That being said, when I go to a Mint show, I usually expect to see an antiquated curiosity rather than a work that is still entertaining and enlightening by modern standards. For instance, the one-act plays of Teresa Deevy (recently produced by the Mint under the title The Suitcase Under the Bed) fell into that category.
So it is a surprise to find that the Mint’s latest revival – Hindle Wakes, a three-act family drama by Manchester playwright Stanley Houghton (1881-1913), which flopped on Broadway in 1912 – plays so well today. With its twist ending, strong-minded female protagonist, and commentary on morality and marriage, it is not unlike attending a revival of a Bernard Shaw play like Candida, Mrs. Warren’s Profession or Major Barbara. As it happens, according to Maya Cantu’s playbill essay, Annie Horniman, the producer of Hindle Wakes, was described by Shaw as “the lady who really started the modern movement.”
Hindle Wakes begins with a working-class married couple, Christopher Hawthorn (Ken Marks) and Mrs. Hawthorn (Sandra Shipley), anxiously awaiting the arrival of their daughter Fanny (Rebecca Noelle Brinkley), an assertive young adult who works at the same mill as her father and has apparently been spending a short holiday with a friend at a seaside destination.
When Fanny finally does arrive, her parents pull apart her purported cover story and demand an explanation as to where she has really been. It turns out that Fanny has enjoyed a romantic liaison with Alan Jeffcote (Jeremy Beck), the son of the mill’s owner. If Fanny’s parents wanted, they could probably all move on, and Fanny and Alan’s weekend together would remain a secret. But they insist on addressing it and having Alan remedy the situation by immediately marrying Fanny.
So Christopher Hawthorn pays an unexpected, very awkward nighttime visit to Alan’s father, Nathaniel Jeffcote (Jonathan Hogan), and his wife (Jill Tanner), at their far nicer and bigger home. It turns out that Christopher and Nathaniel are old friends who started out together in the business, although Christopher made a bad business decision and ultimately ended up as Nathaniel’s employee rather than his partner.
At first, Mrs. Jeffcote questions whether Fanny’s version of events is to be believed, but Nathaniel is far more trusting. And when Alan later verifies the recent events, Nathaniel insists that Alan is to marry Fanny – regardless of Alan’s whining that Fanny is beneath him, and the fact that Alan is already engaged to Beatrice Farrar (Emma Geer), whose father, Sir Timothy Farr (Brian Reddy), is a rich manufacturer.
The Mint uses just one intermission, seamlessly combining acts two and three, which take place in the same location and on top of each other. Once it looks as if Alan will indeed be marrying Fanny, she asks whether she has the right to speak on behalf of herself and surprises everyone by rejecting the match, in a display of self-confidence in her professional abilities and sexuality.
Fanny’s decision must have been shocking to a Victorian audience. It is also unexpected today, but especially relevant at this particular moment in time. As gender equality becomes a more pervasive issue, here is a play from a hundred years ago where a young woman snubs an offer to marry into wealth and insists on her own desires, ideals and independence.
The production (directed by Gus Kaikkonen, who has staged and acted in many other plays at the Mint) is marked by excellent ensemble acting, from which the play takes on compulsively watchable buoyancy – full of dramatic turns and light humor, and sentimentality squaring off against social realism. While virtually all Mint productions are acceptable for its niche subscriber base, this one really deserves a larger audience.