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Theatre in Review: Chains (Mint Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Christopher Gerson, Jeremy Beck. Photo: Todd Cerveris

Apparently, The Great Resignation really began in 1909. That's the unmistakable impression to be taken away from Chains, the latest entry in the Mint's ongoing rediscovery of the early twentieth century playwright Elizabeth Baker. We go to the Mint to discover fascinating lost works that elegantly illuminate dark corners of theatre history. Chains, in Jenn Thompson's superbly staged production, has all of that, but it also addresses, clearly and directly, the present moment, when so many are questioning the quality of their work lives, or whether they want to work at all. Baker, a sharp social critic with a penetrating insight into the details of British middle-class life, speaks in a voice that is carefully modulated yet quietly devastating; it comes for you when you least expect it.

"Of course, it's risky. But who wouldn't have a little risk instead of that beastly hole every day for years? Scratch, scratch, scratch, and nothing in the end, mind you?" So says Fred Tennant, a London clerk who suddenly decides to throw it over and try his luck in Australia. It's a decision that sends shock waves through his friends and acquaintances, most of them inured to a life of drudgery as the price of a nice house in the suburbs. Tennant's solution is radical -- he has no prospects, just a desire to make a change -- but, speaking of his current position, his logic is irrefutable: "Suppose I stay there. They'll raise the screw every year till I get what they think is enough for me. Then you just stick."

"Haven't I gone backwards and forwards to the city every day of my life since I was sixteen and am I crazed because I suggest it's a bit monotonous?" That's Charley Wilson talking, another clerk quietly seething over his lot in life. A day and a half of leisure each week, mostly spent in his arid backyard garden, is insufficient recompense for a life of dull, meaningless toil. He and his cheerful, contented wife Lily get by, but only just, keeping careful note of their expenses and they have little to forward to but more of the same. Then Tennant, their border, announces his Australia plan, stunning Charley and causing him to drastically re-evaluate his own choices.

"You should have seen me last night! I took off my shop collar and apron and put them on the floor and danced on them," says Maggie Massey, Lily's sister, who loathes her job enough marry a well-off dullard. Never mind that she doesn't love him; it's a means of escape. In private moments, her decision fills her with self-disgust, but her choices are limited. She is entirely sympathetic to Tennant, saying, "If I were a man, I wouldn't stay in England another week. I wouldn't be a quill-driver all my life." Such comments alarm Lily, who senses a direct assault on home and hearth. Indeed, as news of Charley's dissatisfaction spreads through their circle, an unthinkable idea looms: Is Charley making exit noises? Could he throw in his lot with Fred?

Baker's remarkably clear vision of a mercantile society that provides employment but little satisfaction, is most apparent in a visit to Lily and Maggie's unreflective, self-satisfied parents. "Father was a plumber, and if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me," her father insists, piously. When Maggie mildly remarks that office work is a strain, her normally sunny mother explodes: "You don't come into the world to have pleasure. We've got to do our duty, and the more cheerfully we can do it, the better for ourselves and everybody else." In Chains, this just-get-on-with-it attitude is pervasive; it's not surprising that Charley and Maggie feel like aliens in their own homes.

Thompson's production is a bit of a slow starter, establishing the Wilsons' domestic routine in leisurely fashion, but it soon arrives at several revelatory, emotionally charged moments. Charley, affectionately taking Lily's hands, says, "Why, they're getting quite rough." Defensively, she says, "It's the washing, dear. It does roughen your hands." Charley kisses them, murmuring, "They weren't rough when we married." The pause that follows is filled with love and sorrow; suddenly, we see a marriage on the brink. Maggie, probing Walter Foster, her fiancé, wonders if he has ever experienced any discontent. "A long time ago, but I'm quite safe now, dear," he replies, offering her a deadly form of reassurance. A climactic scene, staged at the breakfast table, simmers with undercurrents of tension as the decisive moment arrives for Charley.

Thompson has assembled one of the best Mint ensembles ever, which is saying something. Jeremy Beck's Charley is a thoroughly decent chap caught in a net of responsibilities, feeling his youth and intelligence slipping away. In Laakan McHardy's subtle performance, Lily conceals a faintly steely attitude behind a placid domestic façade; she is tougher than she looks. Peterson Townsend makes Tennant's rash decision seem thoroughly reasonable, even if he seems a little nonplussed at the conversation he has unwittingly started. Olivia Gilliat endows Maggie with a cutting intelligence, no more so than when sadly admitting, "I don't love Walter. I love his house."

Also making strong contributions are Brian Owen as a raucous neighbor who barges into the Wilson home by leaping over the garden wall; Claire Saunders and Avery Whitted as young lovers who think marriage will conquer all difficulties (Charley has a few bracing thoughts for them); Christopher Gerson as Charley's colleague, who comes bearing bad news; Anthony Cochrane and Amelia White as Lily's cliché-spouting mum and dad; and Ned Noyes as the good-natured but hopelessly dim Walter Foster.

In John McDermott's detailed and attractive scenic design, Charley and Lily's sitting room, with a garden visible upstage right, is transformed, in full audience view, into the Masseys' mauve-tinted parlor. (The scene change, carried out by the cast, is so beautifully executed that it gets a round of applause.) Paul Miller's lighting creates several precisely rendered time-of-day looks, most notably a rainy Sunday afternoon. David Toser's costumes are fully realized, period-accurate creations. M. Florian Staab's sound design includes a rainstorm and chimes, in addition to piano-and-string compositions that strike the right tone of underlying urgency.

Baker's candid diagnosis of a pervasive social problem -- a middle class granted just enough creature comforts to keep it well-fed yet spiritually starved -- must have been striking enough in 1909, but it will surely resonate with 2020 audiences. Indeed, its view of capitalism and its discontents feels prophetic. Maggie, noting that clerks like Charley and Tennant work such long hours that "they never see the daylight," adds, "And if the men have got used to it, it's all the worse. They want stirring up -- and it's the women who've got to do the stirring." We now know that one woman did plenty of stirring, and her name was Elizabeth Baker. --David Barbour

(24 June 2022)

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