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Two Views of "The Daughter-in-Law"
by D.H. Laurence
Written by D.H. Lawrence
Directed by Martin Platt
February 8th through March 20th
New York City Center Stage II
Reviewed by Eric Uhlfelder
Running Time: 2.30 hours with one intermission
It’s great to see the Mint Theater back live on stage after its two-year Covid-induced hiatus. That’s reason enough to bring folks to one of New York’s most remarkable theater companies.
SANDRA SHIPLEY (as Mrs. Gascoyne) and CIARAN BOWLING. Photo by Maria Baranova
Artistic director Jonathan Bank decided his (dare I say) post-Covid debut is a play he had brought to stage nearly 20 years ago when the Mint was just getting started. Bank also relied on the same director, Martin Platt, and design team that helped turn the original production into a hit that enjoyed 74 consecutive sold-out performances.
A second equally compelling reason for attendance was to see a rare play by D.H Lawrence. He wrote this autobiographically inspired piece in 1913. But it took more than 50 years before it saw the light of stage in London’s Royal Court Theatre.
And the third pull is The New York Times Review of the Mint’s originally 2003 production. Bruce Webber wrote: “Lawrence’s tale of marriage strained by class conflict is so well constructed, so brutally intimate and so psychologically shrewd that it has the prescience and dimensions of an important modernist work…reminiscent of O’Neill.”
From casting through lighting and design, the Mint hasn’t missed a beat in authentically recreating the play’s set from a century ago in the coal-mining district of the Erewash Valley near Eastwood, England where Lawrence was born and raised.
Unrest is a theme of the play—from striking miners pushing back against profiteering bosses to the state of domestic affairs in several households. Tranquility seems a far off dream in the strife between sons and mothers, daughters and mothers, and a recently married couple. All this is par for the Mint, which has a penchant for theater that focuses on life’s challenges.
The many layers of conflict on display echo Lawrence’s own struggle in having parents from different classes and temperaments.
Here, families seem born out of marriages that at best are made out of need or obligation, lacking empathy, support, companionship and love that would better bind and help characters through their daily toil.
SANDRA SHIPLEY (as Mrs. Gascoyne) and AMY BLACKMAN (as Minnie). Photo by Maria Baranova.
This observation is what challenges the plot from the start--making one wonder why Luther (Tom Coiner) and Minnie (Amy Blackman) ever bothered marrying. Being from other sides of the tracks made the pairing unusual: Luther a crass, simple-minded miner who likes his drink; Minnie, educated, formal, and financially endowed, which should’ve given her far more choice than most local girls would’ve enjoyed.
Further complicating the six-week old marriage is Tom’s brother Joe (Ciaran Bowling) who’s both vicious and flirtatious toward his bother’s spouse. Then there’s news of a pre-marital dalliance by Tom, which has led to an unexpected pregnancy of a local lass. This fuels scheming by the girl’s and Tom’s mothers who agree that Minnie would surely not mind parting with a few pounds to keep the unseemly pregnancy quiet.
But the most intriguing psychological matter is the claim that the sons’ mother, Mrs. Gascoyne (wonderfully played by Sandra Shipley), has kept too tight of hold of the maternal cord to ever allow her boys to be ambitious and capable of embracing wives of their own. And this core theme is the most challenging for all to deal with—including some in the audience.
Around the same time Lawrence was writing the play, Freud was making the point that few are truly capable of free will—that our behaviour and tendencies are imprinted well before we can even be aware what they are--or that they even exist.
Lawrence cuts through this ambiguity in the way he resolves the play--Minnie’s decision to dispatch with her own source of independence--as if that would alter her relationship with Luther.
TOM COINER (as Luther) and AMY BLACKMAN (as Minnie). Photo by Maria Baranova.
Brought to life with incredible authenticity and vividness by a talented cast, The Daughter-in-Law is a delight. Ciaran Bowling’s Joe and Amy Blackman’s Minnie are the play’s most dynamic and opposing characters: the former, an amiable bull in a china shop; the latter, far more subtle as she cautiously navigates terrain in which she never expected to find herself.
The play is written in a regional dialect “rich in Old English holdovers and a lingering Norse influence when England was rule by Vikings,” as the playbill informs. This is a challenge, so much so that the playbill includes a glossary of definitions that can’t possibly be absorbed within the few minutes before the lights go down.
But it’s through action and the quality of each actor’s performance that brings meaning.
D.H. Lawrence’s “The Daughter-in-Law,”
a well-staged misogynist play
“The Daughter-in-Law.” Written by D.H. Lawrence.
Directed by Martin Platt.
Stage II, New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, NYC.
Tkts NYCityCenter. http://nycitycenter.org/
Opened Feb 22, 2022, closes March 20, 2022.
D.H. Lawrence’s 1913 “The Daughter-in-Law” is a classical misogynist play. The tired message is that to have a happy marriage, a woman must be subservient to her husband. This holds even if he’s below her in intelligence and ambition and disinclined to better himself by work. She should move herself down a peg. And mothers are controlling harridans who spoil their sons’ lives if they can.
Tom Coiner as Luther and Amy Blackman as Minnie, photo Maria Baranova.
The fine Mint Theater Company production is directed by Martin Platt with an excellent cast, especially the wife Minnie (Amy Blackman), who shifts between self-assured and self-abnegating, and her mother-in-law Mrs. Gascoyne (Sandra Shipley, always tough).
Minnie and Luther (Tom Coiner, alternately moody and raging) have been married for six weeks. He had asked her twice, though it seems in a fairly desultory fashion, and she said no. Then a year or two later she invited him to Manchester where she was a governess and said they should marry. Her uncle had died and left her 100 pounds, a big sum for the working class.
Lawrence sets her up as a shrew, always finding fault with Luther, even flirting with his brother Joe (Ciaran Bowling).
Early on we learn that Luther, who is 30, made pregnant a sweet not-too-bright neighbor of 23, quite the opposite of the clever Minnie.
Tom Coiner as Luther and Amy Blackman as Minnie, photo Maria Baranova.
The young woman’s mother Mrs. Purdy (Polly McKie), comes to see Mrs. Gascoyne, who out of spite wants to tell Minnie, but Joe, who is there because he lives at home, doesn’t want Luther’s marriage destroyed.
The mothers solve the problem. They will keep everything quiet if Luther pays some money to the Purdy family, who are poor.
There’s also a coming strike by workers in the coal mine. Sometimes you hear the sound of pick axes smashing into the coal. The family rooms and sounds make a realistic set. (Set by Bill Clarke, music and sound by Lindsay Jones.) But although it’s clear that the bosses are rotten, that is just background to the real story, which is Minnie vs Luther, or women against men.
You wonder how Minnie chose him till she admits, “because I could get nobody better.”
She has fitted their living room with a damask covered table and a hutch with blue Wedgwood plates.
Minnie (Amy Blackman) carries plates away from table where Luther (Tom Coiner) sits, photo Maria Baranova.
He arrives with his face covered in coal dust, which he doesn’t wash off. He slurps his soup.
Minnie presses Luther to work harder to get a promotion. He doesn’t care. The way the words are spoken and directed, she seems to be always pestering and rebuking him. Luther: “Nothing but faults she finds with me…She’s nice with everybody but me.”
Joe visits, breaks one of her fine plates, then another. “That’s for your pretension,” he seems to say. But the aggression may cover up his own anti-female hostility from a sense of being trapped. He will reveal he can’t break away from mother.
Later, drunk, Luther blurts out the pregnancy, figuring Minnie must know. To his credit (as Lawrence portrays it) he is devastated and remorseful. But thinks he might have been better marrying her. “I want somebody to look after me.” So now we have it. Minnie has failed to be the wife as compliant servant.
Lawrence’s theme is the unmanning of men when women are superior to them in some way.
Minnie (Amy Blackman) kisses hands of husband Luther (Tom Coiner), photo Maria Baranova.
The two seem to break up. She will go to Manchester and take a step she hopes will improve the marriage, because it will make her dependent on him as her husband. Then the sexes will be in proper balance and the marriage can succeed. The tactic is absurd, but she does it faute de mieux, as she had said. From that moment, the play falls into male supremacist fantasy.
Maybe Lawrence had second thoughts, or at least he gives the women their due. Near the end, Mrs. Gascoyne tells Minnie, “when a woman builds her life on men, either husband or sons, she builds on summat as sooner or later brings the house down crash on her head.”
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