John Ferguson: Minty Fresh

By: Sep. 29, 2006
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You'd never know it if you just walked by that inconspicuous office building on West 43rd Street, but past the security guard and up a few flights is one of New York's finest museums of theatre history.  That's where The Mint Theater Company has been homesteading for nearly 10 years, regularly mounting forgotten plays, often by forgotten authors, in productions that remain faithful to the sensibilities of the playwright's time.  And in doing so, there's a unique freshness and vitality in their dedication to the past.  

Their newest offering, St. John Ervine's John Ferguson, premiered on Broadway over 75 years ago, only the second production of the legendary Theatre Guild, and its plot, believe it or not, is that old chestnut about a young woman promising to marry a man she doesn't love in order to help her family pay the mortgage on their farm.  But this is far from being some tired melodrama.  The play's focus is on the title character, John Ferguson (Robinson Carricart), an aging farmer in 1800's Ireland, who is no longer physically able provide for his family.  His son, Andrew (Justin Schultz), has left the seminary to tend to the farm, but has no talent for that sort of work.  John and his wife, Sarah (Joyce Cohen), expect a letter from his brother in Boston with money to pay off the mortgage, but when it doesn't arrive the family faces eviction.  Their cowardly neighbor, Jimmy Caesar (Mark Saturno), offers to pay their debt in exchange for the hand of their daughter, Hannah (Marion Woods), who despises him for his spinelessness. 

Here's where things get interesting.  Though Sarah see Jimmy's proposal as quick solution to all their problems, John regards himself as a pious man, looking to the Bible and his own faith in making decisions.  But eventually we see him as a man who uses religion as an excuse for his own inaction.  His belief that God will tell her what to do traps Hannah into deciding to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of the family.  And as plot complications start turning toward the tragic, John's interpretation of scripture becomes more self-serving, evolving into downright hypocrisy.  

Martin Platt directs with a soft touch, allowing legitimate humor to blend with the life-changing urgency the characters are faced with.  Carricart makes for a sturdy and thoughtful central figure, providing a wall for Cohen's pragmatic Sarah to bounce off.  But the younger folks set the major sparks of the evening.  Saturno brings out an extraordinarily funny side of the cowering Ceasar without sacrificing realism and Woods gives a hard edge to her reluctantly dutiful daughter with silent reactions that speak volumes.  As the would-be minister, Schultz contributes significantly in the way he observes those around him and John Keating is quite charming as Clutie, perhaps the most intelligent village idiot I've ever come across. 


Fine design work by Bill Clarke (set) and Mattie Ullrich (costumes) convey the simplicity of the Ferguson home under Jeff Nellis effective lighting. 


With John Ferguson, The Mint has discovered another fascinating artifact from Broadway's past; simple in plot but full of rich language, good humor and drama that pulls you in. 


Photos by Richard Termine:  Top:  Robertson Carricart, Joyce Cohen and Marion Wood

Center: John Keating (above) and Justin Schultz

Bottom:  Robertson Carricart, Joyce Cohen, Mark Saturno and Marion Wood





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