‘The Daughter-in-Law,’ by D.H. Lawrence is Superb! Theater Review
D.H. Lawrence is rarely known for his plays. However, British critics have noted that he was a master playwright, and if discovered as such earlier in his life, he would have been appreciated for his dramas, however maverick and forward-thinking. One such incredibly rich play is being presented by the always excellent Mint Theater Company, who enjoys bringing to life rare jewels in drama that have often been overlooked. The Daughter-in-Law is one of these gems.
Directed by Martin Platt The Daughter in Law presents an amazing portrait of an independent woman, Minnie (Amy Blackman), a former governess married to a collier (coal miner), Luther Gascoyne (Tom Coiner). The couple live in a mining town near his mother’s (Mrs.Gascoyne-Sandra Shipley) home where his brother Joe (Ciaran Bowling), also a collier, works with him in East Midlands England.
The setting is autobiographical and akin to where D.H. Lawrence’s father worked and where he and his siblings lived with their mother (reminiscent of Minnie), who had cultural aspirations for Lawrence, and who inspired him in his studies. Lawrence’s play evolves into conflicts among the characters. These are rich in thematic evolution that comes to some resolution by the end of the play after the colliers riot against scab workers during a strike. Interestingly, the themes involve gender roles, class, economic inequity and familial love. Also, Freudian tropes between mothers and sons, an issue that Lawrence often investigated, receives a hearing in this realistic and beautifully acted production that Platt has tautly directed, so it remains provocatively, emotionally, tense throughout.
To a fault, the actors have been schooled in the Midlands accent which provides realism and creates the audiences’ attentive stir to understand all that the characters communicate. At times, this takes getting used to. However, the actors portray the characters’ emotional feeling sincerely and authentically, so that one understands, even though one may not be able to translate word for word what the characters say.
Nevertheless, when Joe (the vibrant Ciaran Bowling), enters sporting an arm in a sling and his mom (the dynamic and authentic Sandra Shipley), fusses over him with his dinner and probes what happened with receiving a disability check, we understand their close relationship, and we also understand that mother and son mutually care for each other, living under the same roof, watching out for each other, while other family have gone on to make their own lives.
The hard conditions of the mines remind us of the corporate structure which Lawrence reveals has changed little over one hundred years later. The owners receive all the benefits, and the workers are given low wages and are subcontracted out to keep them hungry and off-balance, so they are unsure of where they stand in the company’s graces. Joe and his brother, like their father before them, were at the mercy of the owners; and their father died as a result of an accident we find out later in the play. This undercurrent of workers vs. owners is the driving undercurrent and reveals that the misery of need and want is what impacts the families who live and depend on coal mining for their survival.
During lively dinner conversation, Joe tells his mother that his attempt to receive a check for his broken arm has been rejected. His manager tells his version of “the acceptable truth” of what happened to Joe, so that it is Joe’s fault that he was injured, because he was “fooling around.” It was not that he was injured on the job because of some dereliction of another worker or the mine. Lawrence strikes at the inequality of the haves and have nots and the managers who make sure to protect their employers. Thus, we feel for Joe and his mother, who are not destitute, but who struggle economically. If any stress comes to either of them, they are a few steps away from the equivalent of the poorhouse. Such is their economic and class level.
Into the background of this economic insecurity and potential working class impoverishment comes Mrs. Purdy (the convincing and excellent Polly McKie), a neighbor who brings disturbing news. Her daughter, who she describes as rather a simple girl, is pregnant. And after avoiding the direct truth until Mrs. Gascoyne drags it out of her, Mrs. Purdy lays the blame at the feet of Luther, who married Minnie seven weeks before. Mrs. Gascoyne pushes Mrs. Purdy cleverly off on Luther and Minnie, especially Minnie since she has brought some money into the marriage and can afford to pay Mrs. Purdy and her daughter off for their silence and for Bertha’s upkeep with the baby. This suggestion is made after Joe and Mrs. Purdy verify that Luther was seeing Bertha Purdy, something that Mrs. Gascoyne didn’t realize because Luther kept it under the radar and wasn’t serious with her.
Assurances are made to Mrs. Purdy that she must see Luther and Minnie at their house, since Minnie has received an inheritance that Mrs. Gascoyne insists should be used to pay off Mrs. Purdy. This malevolent and resentful suggestion is disputed by Joe whose empathy for his brother and Minnie is greater than his mother’s. As Mrs. Gascoyne discusses Luther’s marriage to Minnie in demeaning terms, it is obvious that she resents the “high and mighty” Minnie ending up with her son. She tells Mrs. Purdy that it’s because he is the only one she could get.
At this point not meeting Minnie, we wonder who this snotty woman is and side with Mrs. Gascoyne because we have gotten to know this nurturing, motherly type who obviously cares about her children. Based on Lawrence’s brilliant dialogue characterizing Minnie through the eyes of Mrs. Gascoyne, we believe that this snobby woman who thinks she’s “better” than the colliers and their families is pretentious. Also, we believe that she is so desperate, she doesn’t love Luther, but she just wants not to be an old maid.
Interestingly, Lawrence allows this portrait of Minnie to remain, until we see her relationship with the two brothers unfold. Gradually, her characterization is revealed and her strength, power, indomitable wisdom and love for Luther becomes apparent but with twists and turns, ups and downs by the the end of the play. But first, she must stand up and upend her mother-in-law’s presumptive discriminatory attitude against her, and then wait for the right moment to forgive her so that the two of them become closer.
Platt’s direction in keeping us wondering how Minnie will react when she discovers Luther has a child on the way is subtle and yet eventful, as Lawrence provides surprises and unusual events which keep us enthralled. Mrs. Purdy tells Luther about the child, but Joe manages to drive Minnie out of the house so that she leaves before Mrs. Purdy confronts her with the “truth.”
In an ironic twist it is Luther, who returns much later drunk, guilty and ready to be rejected. He picks a terrible fight with Minnie, then in humiliation covered over with bravado, he reveals that he has gotten Bertha with child. Interestingly, Minnie remains calm and collected, non judgmental and rational, presenting the idea that the child may not be Luther’s, but another man’s. Nevertheless, Luther becomes churlish and obnoxious, which prompts her to call him out for his meanness, especially when he suggests that Bertha was nicer to him than Minnie.
The actors do an exceptional job in raising the stakes and increasing the argument and tension between Minnie and Luther, so that we don’t know whether or not they will break up, Minnie will leave, whether Luther will have to return to his mother or both of them will end up bloodied and bruised as they come to blows. In Lawrence’s characterizations of Minnie and Luther, their relationship becomes explosive and we aren’t sure whether it’s because of class differences, economic differences (she came from a bit more money than he and he may resent it) gender role assumptions (Minnie has worked for herself and made her own money) or something else. Interestingly, we don’t consider that they may love one another, feel hurt and pain that they might lose each other, or are emotionally trying to settle out their own feelings.
The actors are just exceptional in revealing this marvelous nuance and the director has shepherded them so that we are off balance in attempting to figure out how they really feel about each other. One of the high points of the play comes when Minnie confronts her mother-in-law and indicates that she has not allowed either of her sons to become men. Minnie points out that she has babied them so that they remain shells and are forced to rely on her emotionally and psychically which has destroyed them and made them weak. Interestingly, Joe agrees with Minnie. And he indicates this situation emotionally has debilitated him and at times has left him suicidal. Ciaran Bowling, Sandra Shipley and Amy Blackman are wonderful in this confrontation scene.
Amy Blackman as Minnie gives an amazing and powerful performance. She is stalwart and strong as she stands up to Sandra Shipley’s mother-in-law who manages to be infuriating and yet very human and poignant as a woman who is needy and relies on the ties amongst her and her sons. Tom Coiner as Luther is frightening and brutal as well as weak and sheep-like when he finally admits his love and dependence on Minnie.
Lawrence concludes the play surprisingly by revealing what has been at stake all along. It is a complicated and intricate conundrum that he presents and then the revelation clearly indicates that there was no mystery. This is how a couple is settling into themselves and separating from every other family member to cling to each other as they define themselves in the most important relationship of their lives.
This wonderful production should be seen for many reasons, principally because D.H. Lawrence has written a great play with nuanced characters in striking relationships that are unfamiliar to us that the Mint Theater Company has presented in this superb revival. The intricate details of setting, the props, the coal stove that is the hearth, the set design, down to the food and plates that show Minnie’s aspirations to being middle class, manifest a reality that makes us identify with these individuals. Kudos to the tremendous effort on the part of Bill Clarke (sets), Holly Poe Durbin (costumes), Joshua Larrinaga-Yocom (props), Jeff Nellis (lights), Original Music & Sound (Lindsay Jones).
The Daughter-in-Law comes in at two and one-half hours and is at New York City Center, Stage II. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.nycitycenter.org/pdps/2021-2022/the-daughter-in-law/
Posted on February 25, 2022, in NYC Download, NYC Theater Reviews, Off Broadway and tagged Amy Blackman, Ciaran Bowling, D.H. Lawrence, Martin Platt, Polly McKie, Sandra Shipley, The Daughter-in-Law, The Mint Theater Company, Tom Coiner. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.
YOU WRITE GOOD
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SOUNDS AS THO BASED ON REAL MEMORY
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I’ve not read D.H Lawrence’s plays but only novels. My favourite being “ Sons and Lovers”. I should try and read his plays too!
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They are hard to find.
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I’ve read “ Sons and Lovers” by D.H Lawrence, should read his plays too!
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