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Theatre in Review: Hindle Wakes (Mint Theater Company)

Jeremy Beck, Rebecca Noelle Brinkley. Photo: Todd Cerveris

There's a slashing irony sitting in plain view in Hindle Wakes, and it's to the credit of Stanley Houghton, its author, that the audience is left to discover it for itself. Written in 1910 and set in Lancashire, in the northwest of England, when the area was a hub of the textile industry, it is one of the least sentimental plays ever written about matchmaking. Maybe it's in the runoff from the mills that provide the characters with their livelihoods, but something has seeped into their souls -- a combination of Victorian morality and hard bargaining that leaves no room for honest feeling in the business of arranging young people's futures. It's a quiet play about a commonplace situation, but, the more one thinks about it, the more devastating it seems.

Hindle is a burgeoning community loaded with "weaving sheds," where cotton is turned into salable fabrics. "Wakes," or "Wakes Week," is an archaic term for bank holiday, and, as the play begins, Christopher Hawthorn and his wife are anxiously awaiting the return of their daughter, Fanny, from her vacation at Blackpool. There's a pronounced undertone of tension in their rather ordinary conversation, and, when the young lady arrives, they all but pounce on her, grilling her for the details of her stay. As she reminisces about the fun she had with her friend Mary, they drop the bomb: Mary died a few days earlier, in a boat accident. Christopher went to Blackpool to retrieve Fanny, who was nowhere to be found. Shaken by the news and caught irrevocably in a lie, she tearfully admits that she spent the weekend in a hotel -- with a young man. The scene is a model of exposition, moving swiftly and surely to trap the rattled young lady, forcing her to bare the unpalatable truth.

Compounding the shock is Fanny's choice of paramour: Alan Jeffcote is the son of Nathaniel, a prosperous mill owner and Christopher and Fanny's employer. Nathaniel and his wife are accomplished strivers, having climbed out of the working class to occupy a mansion with four living rooms and fourteen bedrooms. Nathaniel has plans for Alan that include marrying Beatrice, whose father is the former mayor and possessor of a knighthood, and, later on, a seat in Parliament. In the meantime, the young man is kept on a short leash, working for Nathaniel without a salary and depending on paternal handouts to keep him in expensively cut suits.

Do Fanny and Alan sound like they are prepared to set out on life's road together? Are they even remotely interested in such a prospect? Nevertheless, Christopher confronts Nathaniel with the truth, and the two men strike a deal: The couple will be married as quickly and quietly as possible. Beatrice will be cast aside, and perhaps a scandal can be averted. Their agreement sets in motion a battery of maneuvers among all interested parties -- the men's wives have sharply different opinions, and Beatrice's father mixes in, too -- with everyone pursuing his or her own agenda. The two biggest curveballs are thrown by Beatrice, whose deeply religious nature coexists with a steel-trap mind, and Fanny, who can't understand what all the fuss is about, and who, anyway, has a rather different sort of man in mind for herself.

As each character advances his or her chess moves, the word "love" is, most of the time, strikingly absent. Neither Alan nor Fanny pretends to anything but a passing attraction, and the older couples have long left passion behind. (At least one of them is involved in a shady arrangement of his own.) Beatrice claims to love Alan -- at one point, she stuns him with a passionate kiss -- but, given her spiritual nature, she isn't the type to get carried away for the sake of an erring fiancé. Ultimately, the sensibilities of one century are pitted against those of another: In their frank self-interest, Alan and Fanny are the products of a new morality born in the weaving sheds. In an earlier time, Fanny might have stayed at home, cultivating the domestic arts and waiting for a gentleman to come calling; instead, she has learned a trade and is more than capable of supporting herself. If she isn't welcome at home, she will make one of her own. In contrast to his parents, who, despite their deluxe trappings, are weathered by years of toil and social climbing, Alan is a fashionable, floppy-haired poppet, reared largely to spend his father's money -- and, by extension, advertise to the community the Jeffcotes' net worth. Nathaniel and Christopher may be appalled at their children's behavior, but they have created the new brave new world that has given birth to such strange, selfish creatures.

Under Gus Kaikkonen's meticulous, understated direction, a way of life and its assumptions and ideals are overturned by a capitalism-inspired vision of individual satisfaction. The production is filled with telling details: Fanny ingratiatingly pushing a box of candy toward her mother, who coolly pushes it back; Alan entering the house inebriated and knocking over a set of fireplace tools before slumping in a chair; Nathaniel displacing his anxiety about a forthcoming confrontation by snapping at the maid. The standouts in the cast include Jonathan Hogan as Nathaniel, whose quiet manner masks a deep pleasure in the exercise of power; Sandra Shipley as Mrs. Hawthorn, who sourly denounces Fanny while greedily imagining the prospect of a wealthy son-in-law; and Jeremy Beck, whose Alan is an entitled man-boy, convinced that nothing is ever his fault. There are especially striking contributions from Emma Geer as Beatrice, who, with shining eyes, informs Alan that he has an opportunity to make "a really splendid sacrifice" by wedding Fanny, and Rebecca Noelle Brinkley, whose cold-eyed skepticism scandalizes the elders. ("I'll trouble you to talk to me without swearing at me," she tells Nathaniel. "I'm not one of the family yet.")

The play's theme is neatly embodied in Charles Morgan's set design, which locates both the Hawthorns' kitchen and the Jeffcotes' breakfast room within a kind of skeletal iron gazebo structure, each of its ribs adorned with industrial gears, each scene given a mellow gaslight glow by Christian DeAngelis' lighting. It's as if the Industrial Revolution has reached out, holding all the characters in its chilly embrace. Sam Fleming's costumes draw strict lines between the classes. Jane Shaw has provided rippling harp themes that underline the action with a touch of sadness, along with some startling thunder effects.

This revival of Hindle Wakes -- a play not seen in New York since 1922 -- effectively immerses us in a world where the mere hint of impurity is enough to destroy a young woman's reputation, causing her parents to frantically book a church. (Fanny isn't even pregnant; she and Alan merely slipped away for a couple of days.) But the clock is ticking: A new morality is being born. Will it bring about something better than the chilly maneuverings of the Hawthorns and the Jeffcotes? We all know the answer to that question. -- David Barbour

(19 January 2018)

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