Sniping siblings. The haves exerting control over the have-nots. Unhappy marriages that may not be sustainable. Three years before she produced her masterwork, The Little Foxes, the great Lillian Hellman explored these ever-potent subjects for the first time in her ambitious, somewhat sprawling play Days to Come, now being given a sturdy revival at the Mint Theatre.
In part due to Hellman’s inexperience as a writer (it was only her second play) and J.R. Sullivan’s initially sluggish direction, the production really doesn’t come fully alive until after intermission, largely because the first act is so heavy on exposition as it introduces both its vast cast of characters and numerous plot strands. But the second act makes up for it, with plenty of crackling dialogue and surprising twists to keep the audience fully engaged.
For that entire initial act, we are in the stately living room of the Rodmans (gorgeously designed by Harry Feiner), the most powerful family in a small Cleveland suburb and the owner of its local brush factory, which seemingly employs most of the town. Unfortunately, its workers are on strike over a wage cut, much to the dismay of third-generation owner Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull), a rather mild-mannered man who is being obviously controlled by his hard-nosed attorney and best friend Henry Ellicott (a slimy Ted Deavy). The stakes get even higher once Henry convinces Andrew to bring in a crew of strike-breakers (aka gangsters) led by the unscrupulous Sam Wilkie (an effective Dan Daily), whose actions are sure to bring violence to the community, further upsetting its former natural order.
Unfortunately, far too much time is spent early on focusing on Wilkie’s goons (Geoffrey Alan Murphy and Alan Zes), although there is a major payoff from their interactions, also involving the house’s servants, outspoken cook Hannah (and excellent Kim-Martin Cotton) and mild-mannered maid Lucy (Betsy Hogg). Meanwhile, not enough energy is expended on the more intriguing characters, most notably Andrew’s spoiled, self-absorbed, spinster sister Cora (a sublime Mary Bacon), who could be the subject of her own play.
Moreover, it’s hardest to know what to make of Andrew’s unhappy wife, Julie – a beautiful woman who perpetually feels like an outsider (and is treated like one by Cora), and whose unpassionate affair with Henry is obviously not the first of her infidelities. She’s definitely more lost soul than schemer, but Janie Brookshire’s rather wan portrayal robs her of some of our potential sympathy for her. When she goes off for a clandestine meeting with world-weary union organizer Leo Whalen (an extraordinarily good Roderick Hill), it’s not entirely clear if she’s running to him – for romance or a new life – or simply running away from her current situation (which she lays out in no uncertain terms late in the play).
Melding the personal and the political is almost always tricky theatrical business, and as Hellman noted, she was more interested in the play’s family drama than the strike (which is essentially used as a backdrop). So those expecting a major political piece of theater may be disappointed, while others will find their time well spent at Days to Come.