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The Daughter-in-Law

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - February 22, 2022

Sandra Shipley and Amy Blackman
Photo by Maria Baranova
Since its founding in 1992, the Mint Theater Company has expertly fulfilled its mission of presenting worthy but obscure plays from the past. The company, under producing artistic director Jonathan Bank, has done so with such great success and excellent taste that patrons invariably leave Mint shows saying to themselves, "I can't imagine why this play is never staged" rather than "Well, now we know why that one has been shut up in a drawer for half a century!"

Almost miraculously, the Mint has given us new-old winners time and again for 30 years now, with only a few re-dos. Its current offering is a revival of a true rarity that the company first unearthed and presented to the public in 2003: The Daughter-in-Law, by D.H. Lawrence, neither published nor produced during his lifetime. This, of course, is the writer who later achieved worldwide fame/notoriety and caused a sensation with "Lady Chatterley's Lover," the sexually explicit novel so roundly condemned by Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie as "that hideous book by that insane Mr. Lawrence." The Daughter-in-Law is something quite different–a non-sensational, slice-of-life, "kitchen sink" dramedy with only a hint of sex in the form of some mild canoodling between a man and wife.

The play is set in the coal mining district of England's Erewash Valley, in the town of Eastwood (where Lawrence was born and raised). The time is 1912–the same year as the action of The Music Man, now back on Broadway, not to mention the real-life sinking of the Titanic. The setup for the plot is that a coal miner named Luther Gascoyne has impulsively married a woman named Minnie, who is, as people of polite society used to say, "above his station." This causes great consternation for the fellow's mother and brother–all the more so because it turns out that Luther has very recently gotten another woman pregnant. Oh, and all of the above is happening with a miner's strike imminent.

Surprisingly, the main focus here is not the class conflict between Luther and Minnie, nor the plight of Luther's baby mama (whom we never meet during the course of the play), nor even the potentially devastating miner's strike. Rather, it's the fact that Luther is a quintessential example of a "mama's boy," and the big question is whether he will somehow outgrow that and cleave to his wife. It seems an oddity of the piece that the role of Luther is written, and performed for the Mint by Tom Coiner, as such a feckless, immature, quick-to-anger, and ultimately repellent creature that it's impossible to comprehend why so lovely and intelligent a girl as Minnie would want to spend any time with him at all, let alone marry him. For this reason, the ending of the play, though presumably meant to be hopeful, instead leaves one with a strong sense of unease concerning their future together–or, at least, that was the reaction of this theatergoer.

Tom Coiner and Amy Blackman
Photo by Martin Platt
You'll have to attend the production to see if you agree–and if you do attend, please be aware that it will likely take several minutes to tune your ears to the thick East Midlands dialect spoken by most of the characters. Indeed, for the first half or so of the first scene, your experience may be akin to that of watching a foreign film without subtitles. But as the play proceeds, you'll probably begin to feel as if you've somehow picked up another language during the running time. It helps greatly that the Mint's printed program includes a glossary of dialect words and phrases, some of the more colorful examples including "clat-fart" for "gossip," "morm" for "to wander about aimlessly," and "scraight" for "to cry, weep or scream." On that note, if you've fallen in love with an old play that requires first-rate dialect work and superlative acting in general, plus skillful direction (here by Martin Platt) and picture-perfect sets, costumes, and lighting (here by Bill Clarke, Holly Poe Durbin, and Jeff Nellis, respectively), you can do nothing wiser than recommend it to the Mint Theater Company for production–assuming, of course that they haven't already done it.

The level of acting talent on display in The Daughter-in-Law is exceptional even judging by the Mint's vaulted standards, with highest honors going to the remarkable veteran Sandra Shipley as Luther's all-too-possessive mother and the brilliant, young talent Amy Blackman as the wife who is really too good for him. Having been a memorable presence in Broadway productions of plays by Coward, Wilde, Shaw, Peter Shaffer, et al., Shipley proves herself equally up to the challenge of the garrulous, often exasperated (and exasperating) Mrs. Gascoyne as so authentically written by Lawrence. And Blackman, whose credits range from Angels in America to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to Caroline, or Change, creates such a fully etched, thoroughly believable portrait of Minnie that you half expect she would talk and behave that way offstage (but I highly doubt she does).

Also superb are Ciaran Bowling as Luther's brother, Joe, and Polly McKie as the mother of the never-seen woman whom Luther has impregnated. Even Seth Andrew Bridges, in the tiny role of a Cabman, is flawless; he's the understudy for Joe and Luther, and I'm betting you will not be disappointed if you happen to see him go on in either of those roles when/if you attend this show, an action that is most highly recommended.

The Daughter-in-Law
By D.H. Lawrence
Through March 20, 2022
Mint Theater Company
New York City Center Stage II, 131 W 55th St (between 6th & 7th Avenues)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: