BWW Review: RUTHERFORD AND SON at TimeLine Theatre a Chicago Premiere 107 Years in the Making
It's rare that modern theatergoers can catch the Chicago premiere of a ground-breaking play written more than a century ago, but TimeLine Theatre is offering this chance with its searing production of Githa Sowerby's RUTHERFORD AND SON. Set in a factory town in northern England, this tense family drama addresses issues of misogyny, classism, and industrial unrest in the years leading up to WWI. Though it played to great acclaim in its 1912 London premiere, the backlash following the discovery that playwright "K.G. Sowerby" was a woman contributed to its falling out of favor. Following recent revivals over the past several decades, primarily in the UK, Mechelle Moe directs the Chicago premiere of what is now recognized as one of the major plays of the 20th century.
As the title suggests, the plot centers around the Rutherford family, proprietors of a glassworks company and semi-autobiographical stand-ins for the playwright's own family (of Sowerby Glass fame). Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble member Francis Guinan stars as Rutherford, the domineering patriarch who runs his household with the same rigid authority by which he keeps his factory workers in check. A true child of the industrial age, Rutherford's philosophy of life is that a man's purpose is to work hard, build his family's economic and social status, and raise his children to continue the work when he's gone.
Unfortunately for his three grown children, all of whom live at home, Rutherford's approach is confining at best and abusive at worst. Janet (Christina Gorman), the daughter in her mid-30s, occupies a household role barely above that of a servant, with no chance of escape through marriage thanks to her father's aversion to his children mixing with the 'common' people of their town. When she pursues a secret relationship with Martin (Matt Bowdren), Rutherford's most trusted worker, it's clear the odds are stacked against them from the beginning.
The elder of two sons, John (Michael Holding), struggles to support his wife and infant son after incurring Rutherford's wrath by marrying a working-class girl, Mary (Rochelle Therrien). His hope rests on a new discovery that could revolutionize the glass industry, though he's no match for his wily father's attempts to pilfer John's invention for his factory. Finally, there's Richard (August Forman), the mild-mannered curate whose connection to Rutherford undermines his ability to minister to his parishioners.
Michelle Lilly's stark set design and Brandon Wardell's atmospheric lighting amplify the cold, constricting nature of the Rutherford household. The furniture is elegant but nondescript, leaving the eye free to wander to the metal pipes that lurk behind the fireplace and spread their branchlike tentacles into the house, evoking the ever-present and all-consuming pressure to serve the family business. Andrew Hansen's sound design reinforces this effect with subtle undertones that could be either the wind among the fells or the hum of a factory.
Director Mechelle Moe draws carefully paced, powerful performances from this talented cast, ranging from moments of quiet fear and cold manipulation to roaring arguments. Particularly memorable are Gorman and Guinan during Janet's explosive confrontation with Rutherford, in which she enumerates the distinct ways he has wronged each of his children. Therrien also stands out as the resourceful daughter-in-law, Mary, in a nuanced performance that offers some surprises along the way. My only quibble with this cast is the lack of consistency in accents; the difficult northeast English accent veers into a Scottish brogue for some actors and disappears at times for others.
RUTHERFORD AND SON provides a snapshot of a fascinating period of history; I recommend arriving early enough to read the lobby displays and program notes for further context. Beyond the historical significance, this progressive play remains relevant for today's audiences with its fresh dialogue, complex characters, and themes of gender inequality and family dysfunction. It took 107 years to make it to Chicago, but it was worth the wait.
RUTHERFORD AND SON plays through January 12 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657. Tickets are available at timelinetheatre.com or 773.281.8463.
Photo by Lara Goetsch
Review by Emily McClanathan