The Mint Theatre is housed in a black box in an office building on West 43rd Street in New York. It’s not a particularly inviting space, yet it continues to enrich our seasons by uncovering little known plays, by investigating their histories, and often bringing back plays that failed commercially, connecting them to research that often explains why that happened. Dusting plays off of library shelves by names like A.A. Milne, Harley Granville-Barker, Rose Franken, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Zona Gale, Dawn Powell, Susan Glaspell and now Teresa Deevy has taken us into other lands, other times with the help of fine writers and host Jonathan Bank, who is artistic director of the Mint.
This time out he’s discovered a play that was rejected by the Abbey Theatre in the early 40’s after the Abbey had been home to playwright Teresa Deevy’s six plays between 1930 and 1936. Ms. Deevy’s luck had turned; she’d been struck with deafness, a rare side effect of Meniere’s disease with which she’d been diagnosed as a teenager. As a result she never heard the dialogue in her own works. She’d learned to lip read and she followed the actors in that manner. This play lay dormant in a closet for twenty years before it finally was produced in 1956. And no one has paid any attention to it subsequently, until now. Leave it to Mr. Bank – he’s done it again.
Wife to James Whelan is set in a small town in the middle of Ireland. It tells the story of a conflict between ambition and happiness. James is determined to seek success, defined by him as material wealth, and in order to find it he enters a contest for a prized job in Dublin. When he wins it, he chooses to leave home to seek his fortune and he asks his girl Nan Bowers to come with him. When she refuses, he leaves her behind, vowing to come back to Kilbeggan and he asks her to wait for him. She gives him no promises, and off he goes. Seven years later he does return, on the brink of great success with a business in which he owns several local buses. Nan has married, had a child, and lost her husband in a fatal car accident. She comes to him asking for work, and he offers her a job keeping his books. Left alone for a moment, she steals a one pound note from his desk, and then a larger bill. She is caught by him, and his fury causes him to have her charged and arrested for robbery despite the pleadings of his staff who try to convince him that Nan’s behavior was aberrant but based on dire need, for she is broke and has a child to feed. He refuses them, and she is arrested. Six months later, after she’s served her term, she is forced to seek him out again for it’s the middle of the depression (the mid-1930s) and she is still in great need. This time he humiliates her by offering her work as a scrub woman, but she gratefully accepts as she must work at something.
There are other women in James’ life – but he’s never married. There is Nan, the woman he truly loves but whose unwillingness to wait for him has enflamed his need to hurt her. There is Nora, who appeals to his ambition, there is Kate, his true friend – but can anyone bring him happiness?
Deevy writes her people with compassion and insight, but she wraps nothing up neatly at its conclusion. In that sense, she is in the league of writers like Chekhov and William Inge, who also dealt with average folks with yearnings and frustrations, people who often took the wrong roads, made the wrong choices. Deevy’s characters are complicated people, and they are here presented to us with a fresh voice, filled with understanding of human nature.
Mr. Banks’ production is up to the Mint’s standards, which are high. I saw a preview and find fault only here and there. Shawn Fagan’s “James” is good casting. He looks the part, he has the innate qualities James requires. In this early showing, I found him playing a bit too much of Johnny OneNote, too quick, too quirky, too much anger showing too soon. Now and then a touch of humor or charm leaked out for a moment or two, but I would hope that as he further inhabits the role, he will mellow. We need that for us to feel for him, for he treats Nan abominably and Deevy wants us to like her. We do like her, and Janie Brookshire’s attack is just right in playing her . In this early performance, I’d have liked a tad more energy from her, but again – she may well find this on her own . If not, Mr. Bank might help her along, for she is playing Nan very well indeed.
I particularly liked Jon Fletcher as “Apollo Moran”, James’ assistant. Fletcher has the personality and good looks that would have whisked him off on the 20th Century to Hollywood in the golden age of movies. He has the same Irish appeal of the young Dennis Morgan, and he plays Moran with great ease and strength, for there is more to his character than superficial charm. Liv Rooth as “Nora” has what used to be called “the Gloria Grahame role” (the other woman in so many films noir of the 1940s-50s). Blonde, attractive, ambitious, she could well be a wife to James Whelan. And then there is Rosie Benton as “Kate”, James’ good friend, the one he probably should marry. Or should he? If he did, would she remain his good friend?
Vicki Davis’ set, described as “a sunny, sheltered spot on the outskirts of Kilbeggan, locally known as “the south of France” because it gets all of sun and shelter that is given.” I didn’t get that from it at all. It seemed more a gathering spot in the exercise yard of a prison with its brick walls, uninviting stoops on which to lean and sit. The second set, James’ office from which he runs the local bus company that is thriving, functions well enough, but it too is barren. I imagine that’s because it reflects the boss’ coldness and disdain for those close to him, but when he removes the two posters his assistant has posted to liven up the place, he’s back to being Johnny OneNote again.
This play is exactly what the Mint should be doing. It introduces a new generation to the abundant gifts of a fine writer. The cast is good enough to play it for real, to bring its people to life. Many performances are followed by talks by one expert or another, and my matinee was followed by a lively lecture by Maureen Murphy, senior editor of Irish Biography and a Professor at Hofstra. Q and A followed, and icing was applied to the very rich cake that the Mint had served up.