The Mint Theater Company’s mission statement is to “scour the dramaturgical dustbin for worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or neglected—and…create new life for them through production, publication, and educational initiatives”. and with their latest production of Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes, a play that was first premiered in London in 1912, they have lived up to their regal purpose. Hindle Wakes is a lovely crafted and quite progressive stage play, remarkable for something written in 1910. It delves with a compelling sincerity into the complex questions of ethics, class, sex, and morals of the time with a surprisingly dose of comic realism. And in the end, this production is just plain good fun.
When it first was staged, many critics called it the best play of the year. The Sunday Times hailed Hindle Wakes as “a work of illuminating force… as timely as it is significant” and it has definitely aged well. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen (Pearl’s Heartbreak House) the play still presents an unsentimental depiction of two young characters who spent some time together, biblically speaking, without making any commitment towards each other. This sparked moral outrage back in 1912 with it’s controversial subject matter, and although it now feels old fashioned in it’s sentiment and the furthest thing from scandalous, it also rings very true to form within the construct of the play and it’s time. The arguments by all are solid and logical, wrapped up in a tidy artful comedy.
The play opens in the Hawthorn’s home, with the parents of Fanny Hawthorn discussing hotly her weekend get-away. A lie has been told by their daughter, and Mrs. Hawthorn, played wonderfully aggressive and controlling by Sandra Shipley (Broadway’s Present Laughter with Kevin Kline) is not going to let her get away with it. Mr. Hawthorn, played sweetly by the wonderful Ken Marks (David Cromer’s magnificent Our Town) is upset as well, but gives off a loving gentleness to his disappointment. Their kitchen, designed by Charles Morgan, is oddly laid out with windows placed in a spatially illogical manner (the set functions much better over at the Jeffcote’s house) with simple but delicate lighting by Christian Deangelis and sound design by Jane Shaw giving us loud crackling lighting sparking up the energy of the storm coming. And as the center of this storm, in walks the firecracker of a daughter, Fanny, well played with spice and confidence by Rebecca Noelle Brinkley (Washington National Opera’s Dead Man Walking). It seems that on a holiday weekend in Hindle, Fanny left her girlfriend behind and jumped in the motorcar of Alan Jeffcote, the rich mill owner’s son, played by Jeremy Beck (TACT’s The Cocktail Party) for a few days of fun in a hotel in Wales. But the fun stops when the lie told is quickly found out (for quite sad reasons) and Fanny’s parents have had their say on the matter. Morals at the time, you see, state quite clearly that Alan should marry Fanny now because of these few days of fun, regardless of the awkward fact that Alan is already engaged to the lovely, rich, and very well breed Beatrice Farrar, played most regally by Emma Geer (LCT’s How to Transcend a Happy Marriage). Alan is quite the character himself within all this; poorly fitted into a suit that looks one size too large for his frame (was this on purpose, costume designer Sam Fleming? Everyone else looks magnificent so I wonder…). He is a not-so-thoughtful man of privilege now forced to come to terms with his father’s moral standards and a burgeoning young feminist’s critique of his character, not to mention his fiancé’s opinion of his actions. In some ways, he represents all that a young privileged man of the early 1900’s is going to have to make sense of as the years progress into a more modern world where women will have more to say about what is right and wrong in this male dominated world. They will even be granted the vote.
The questions posed first by the Hawthorn parents, and then by all the others; Nathaniel Jeffcote, played by the amazingly gifted Jonathan Hogan (Broadway’s As Is, Burn This), his wife Mrs. Jeffcote (interesting that the mothers aren’t given a first name by the playwright, just the fathers), played purposefully and majestically by Jill Tanner (Broadway’s Enchanted April), and the pompous Sir Timothy Farrar, Beatrice’s father, played wonderfully by Brian Reddy (Broadway’s Gypsy with Patti LuPone), are a treasure trove of conflicting ideals, revolving around the traditional morality of the time. Nathaniel Jeffcote insists that Alan should make an honest woman out of Fanny (will that make an honest man out of Alan as well?) and let go of his betrothed, as Fanny now has a greater claim on the young man. Mrs. Jeffcote has some other ideas. Class and the ideas of women versus men’s roles in their personal sexuality is quite interestingly engaged with. As is the very fun line questioning the idea of what havoc will happen when these ladies have a vote. What Fanny has to say about all this in the end is perfection and quite liberating especially coming from the pen of a male playwright in 1912. The way she sees this dalliance with Alan as “a bit of fun”, believing he is quite a bad choice for a husband leaves all sides of this puzzle perplexed and quite literally stunned.
Interestingly enough but not surprising, Hindle Wakes was a controversial piece of theater when first produced, and provoked a long written debate in one of the newspapers, the Pall Mall Gazette, in which both the author, Stanley Houghton, and the original actress, Edyth Goodall contributed, with many readers at the time questioning the play’s treatment of non-marital sex as appropriate and morally right for the theatre audience to see. Regardless, this play has been made into a film four times, twice in the silent film era (1918, 1927), and twice with sound (1931, 1952). One version was featured in the 1976 series, Laurence Olivier Presents starring Judi Bowker, Donald Pleasence, Trevor Eveand co-directed by Laurence Olivier and June Howson. All this solidifies the importance of what this delightful comedy has going for it underneath the enjoyable banter of the dialogue. And it’s no wonder the Mint Theater Company has ushered Hindle Wakes forward into the troubled times of #MeToo and our current predator-in-chief. This enjoyable and fun comedy should not be lost or neglected, so thank you Mint, for doing the opposite. A character like Fanny, should never be forgotten.