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Hindle Wakes

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - January 18, 2018

Jeremy Beck and Rebecca Noelle Brinkley
Photo by Todd Cerveris

The year 1912 was a bad one for certain trans-Atlantic ship passengers—and, based on what happens in the first scene of Stanley Houghton's 1912 play Hindle Wakes, currently on view in a rare revival by the Mint Theater Company, we may guess that neither is it going to be a good year for young Fanny Hawthorn (played by Rebecca Noelle Brinkley). She has just returned from a holiday to her family home in the Lancashire town of Hindle, only to have her suspicious mother (Sandra Shipley) and concerned father (Ken Marks) obtain Fanny's admission that her sojourn included a sexual liaison with Alan Jeffcote (Jeremy Beck), son of the wealthy mill owner for whom both Fanny and her dad work. Fraught as this situation is by the standards of early-20th century British views of pre-marital sex—not to mention the class difference between the Hawthorns and the Jeffcotes, and on top of that, the employer/employee relationship—another major complication is that Alan's engagement to one Beatrice Farrar (Emma Geer) would seem to prevent him from "making an honest woman" out of Fanny.

The play's construction is rather unusual but highly effective in terms of what we see or don't see happen, and in the way the characters are deployed. Houghton does not depict any part of Fanny and Alan's affair; the action begins on the night when the two young people return to Hindle, and there is no flashback to their tryst. Also, though Fanny is arguably the play's central character, and Brinkley is given the final curtain call to reflect this, she appears only in the first and final scenes—but what she says in that last scene lands with such force that it may well strike present-day theatergoers as similar in spirit to Nora's slamming of the door at the end of Ibsen's A Doll House.

In this and many other sections of Hindle Wakes, Houghton addresses the ludicrous double standard by which men who engage in pre-marital sex are regarded as harmlessly "sowing their wild oats," whereas women who do so are condemned. (If anyone thinks this double standard has been fully eradicated even in modern day, first-world societies, please think again.) One of the most gripping stretches of dialogue comes when Alan's father and mother, played by Jonathan Hogan and Jill Tanner, react in very different ways upon learning what has transpired between their son and Fanny: Mrs. Jeffcote immediately blames the girl and more or less brands her as a slut, while Mr. J. insists that Alan bears the brunt of responsibility for the liaison and its repercussions.

The big question of the play is whether Alan will cut off his engagement to Beatrice in order to marry Fanny, and we hear the various characters voice various opinions on what is the "right thing" to do. The idea that Fanny and Alan should be required to wed simply because they had sex with each other once or twice, even though it's never so much as hinted that Fanny could be pregnant, may now seem quaint. But, as noted, double-standard views on women's sexual activity as compared to men's unfortunately remain in many people's minds, so the play is by no means dated in that respect.

Faced with the challenge of creating a living, breathing, cohesive character in the space of two scenes with a break of about an hour and a half in between, Brinkley succeeds brilliantly; during the last scene, one can almost sense Fanny evolving into a modern woman before one's eyes, silently listening as everyone else talks around her before she finally states her mind. Beck does an excellent job of communicating Alan's fecklessness as well as his moments of self-knowledge and regret, with possibly a step or two toward maturity. And Geer is a bracing presence as Beatrice, who appears very late in the play and reacts to the Alan-Fanny situation in a way that many theatergoers may find surprising.

As for the older generation, Jonathan Hogan offers an expertly well-rounded characterization of Nathaniel Jeffcote, Alan's dad. In both the writing and the acting, this is not your typical "rich-guy-whose-son-has-screwed-up" portrait, but rather something far more nuanced. Similar shadings mark the skillful performances of Tanner as Mrs. J., Shipley and Marks as the Hawthorns, and Brian Reddy as Beatrice's outwardly jovial but self-interested father. There's also a nice turn by Sara Carolynn Kennedy as the Jeffcotes' nervous maid.

Gus Kaikkonen directs with the utmost sensitivity, helping to draw wonderfully naturalistic performances from all involved, and dialect coach Amy Stoller seems to have been a big help with the Yorkshire patois. These two and the rest of the production team—Charles Morgan (scenic design), Sam Fleming (costumes), Christian DeAngelis (lighting), and Jane Shaw (sound and original music)—work together with a superb cast and the words of a long-deceased playwright to create something very special on the stage of Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre. (Note: The Mint has moved across the hall from the Beckett for this show.)

Over the years, the Mint has been staunchly dedicated to presenting older works that have fallen into obscurity but have proven to be well worthwhile for revival in one respect or another. The typically fascinating and copious program notes for this production tell us that Hindle Wakes engendered tremendous controversy and moral outrage at its premiere for its frank, honest depiction of an unmarried, sexually active woman. Two of the most historically significant facts about this play from the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century is that it was produced by a woman, the extraordinary Annie Hornimann, and that in the fine tradition of the aforementioned Ibsen's Doll House, here again a protofeminist play was written by a man: Stanley Houghton, who died at age 32 in 1913. It's both saddening and intriguing to imagine what Houghton might have gone on to create if he had been granted a longer life, but at least we can thank the Mint profusely for giving us an eminently satisfying staging of this gem.

Hindle Wakes
Through February 17
The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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