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IN A RED STATE, 1920
"Inheritors." By Susan Glaspell; directed by Yvonne Conybeare.
At Metropolitan Playhouse of New York
220 East 4th St., NYC. Nov. 11- Dec. 11, 2005. (closed)
Small theatre companies dedicated to rescuing lost masterpieces are vital links in the New York theatre chain. Their productions offer many surprises, like the recent staging of Susan Glaspell's "Inheritors," which premiered in 1921 and is rarely revived. Some of us – theatre writers and historians who are familiar with Glaspell's "Trifles" and "The Verge" -- have assumed that her other plays simply don't play well. The recently formed Susan Glaspell Society and Director Yvonne Conybeare at the Metropolitan Playhouse are providing compelling evidence that we need to take a fresh look at Glaspell's work.
"Inheritors" is about legacies – a hot topic these days. Madeline Fejevary Morton, the protagonist, is heir to both her great grandmother Morton's pioneer courage and generosity and her grandfather Fejevary's dedication to human rights. She is tender with her ailing, resentful father, who is jealous of the land and money left to him, but she follows others footsteps. When we meet her, she is a hedonistic co-ed, but once aroused, she demonstrates her ancestors' intrepid boldness by defending the principles of free speech even against the actions of her own government.
The play opens in 1879 at Great-grandmother Morton's house as she awaits the return of her son and an immigrant friend (Tod Mason) from a Civil War commemorative ceremony. While grandma rocks and snaps green beans and the men munch cookies, we learn that she not only settled the town but also enabled other pioneer families to thrive, keeping food on the stove for anyone passing by because she owned the only farmhouse for miles. She and her family lived in harmony with the Native Americans and welcomed the Fejevarys, aristocrats who had fled Hungary for failed revolutionary activities. When Fejevary's son, a Harvard undergraduate in a bow tie, drops in, he talks about Darwin's theories. "We made ourselves . . . out of wanting to be more," Silas Morton, Madeline's grandfather, observes. And then he announces an act of astonishing generosity: despite a high bid, he will donate his best piece of property for the state to build its first college and insure that the next generations is cultured. A hard-working, uneducated man, he has taken the pioneer spirit to a new dimension.
The next act skips to 1920. Some (offstage) students from India, protesting British control of their country, have been arrested and are threatened with deportation. Madeline is outraged at the general indifference. She attacks a policeman with her tennis racket, is arrested, and then released because of her family connections. A professor (Peter Judd) whose lofty intellectual principles have been compromised by economic constraints tries to reason with her, but she is a true inheritor and she protests once more. Again family and friends gather around to offer advice and pull strings, but she prefers to see her remonstration through. She draws a small jail cell with chalk on the floor, like the one a friend jailed for being a conscientious objector has described in his letters, and stands it in – to indicate that she understands the consequences of her decision.
The ending is electrifying and troubling. Like Antigone, she is a foolish teenager -- who is haunting in her resolve. The playwright did not have the historical perspectives modern audiences can bring to the drama, but Glaspell, herself the child of Iowa pioneers, knew her current events. In her 2005 biography of the writer, Linda Ben Zvi documents the waves of political restrictions and hysteria still in effect in 1920, two years after World War I. Conscientious objectors had been sentenced to as many as 35 years in prison; during a two-day sweep without warrants, 8,000 people were arrested on suspicion of un-American activities; and scores of aliens had been deported, some of them Hindu activists.
But this political dimension does not overpower the drama. The play holds the stage well – in an almost uncut version that runs 2 ½ hours. Margaret Loesser Robinson brought to Madeline a lovely earnestness and vulnerability. She is a charismatic performer. David Fraioli's passion as Silas Morton, Madeline's idealistic grandfather, was in sharp contrast to his introversion as Madeline's father, a man broken by loss and clinging to his possessions. Sean Dill as the conservative Senator Lewis, President of Morton College's Board of Trustees, Jeff Pagliano doubling as Madeline's cousin and uncle, and Sue Glausen Smith doubling as the great-grandmother and Madeline's doting aunt brought a charming and rounded quality to characters who could have been played as caricatures. Costumes by Rebecca Lustig were low-budget wonders, bringing the periods to life. Director Conybeare's blocking and Ryan Scott's minimalist set opened our imaginations, and the small stage of the 60-seat house became a campus, a farm with acres of cornfields, and a small prison cell.
Watching "Inheritors" was a delight. Susan Glaspell had been long neglected. Until recently, she was not even listed as the co-founder with her husband George (Jig) Cram Cook of the Provincetown Players, an important art theatre and forerunner of Off-Broadway, where Eugene O'Neill got his start and many of the important 1920 intellectuals and artists gathered. Glaspell, who had worked her way through Drake University as a journalist, was one of the first women assigned to cover hard news. Long before she won the Pulitzer Prize for "Alison's House" in 1931, she was a well-known novelist and short fiction writer, and a co-founder of Heterodoxy, a New York-based club for professional women. This production of "Inheritors" confirms that she has a voice that should not be lost.
Metropolitan Playhouse will next present Poe-Fest from Jan. 16-29, which continues their series on Outsiders. From March 3- April 2, they are offering Israel Zangwill's "The Melting Pot," which caused heated debates about ethnicity and assimilation.
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