‘Chains,’ an Exceptional American Premiere by Mint Theater Company
The Mint Theater Company resurrects worthy playwrights that haven’t been produced in decades. Before COVID-19 upended their plans the company scheduled two productions of Elizabeth Baker’s works (Chains, Partnership) for the summer of 2020. After the dust settled the company revised their plans for the summer of 2022 and decided to first present Chains in its American Premiere. Later, the Mint Theater Company will present Partnership. At some point they will offer the three Baker plays The Price of Thomas Scott (produced in 2019) Chains and Partnership in an online Streaming Festival so that global audiences might become familiar with the exceptional, profound playwright who was certainly a maverick ahead of her time.
Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962) wrote Chains in the early 20th century, though the themes and issues Baker has her characters confront are current and identifiable with our time. Running at Theatre Row until 23rd of July, the Mint’s production of Chains must not be missed for its acute attention to details of setting, as well as the superb direction by Jenn Thompson (award nominated for Women Without Men, 2016) who has teased out striking performances from her cast. Their ensemble work is authentic and forceful.
Baker’s play focuses on the problems of London’s working classes (clerks, shop girls, etc.), their aspirations pitted against the trials of insecurity, workplace competition and the doldrums of career immobility. In its centrality Baker highlights not only issues of class, but those of gender, economic inequality, immigration and the difficulties of economic upward mobility. Subtly, Baker alludes to the strains between workers and employers. Though the word “union” is not mentioned, the “S” word, “socialism” is referred to once or twice jokingly by the characters as a negative. Nevertheless, the dull, work atmosphere, oppression and owner hostage taking that some characters refer to would be mitigated by unions to equalize the power dynamic with owners.
Using the backdrop of married couple Lily and Charley Wilson (Laakan McHardy, Jeremy Beck) and their extended family, the conflict initiates when the couple’s border and Charley’s work colleague Fred Tennant (Peterson Townsend) announces his plans to leave the boredom of his clerk position and take off to Australia for a change of scene and career. This simple announcement upends Charley’s perspective about his own life and brings to the surface his dissatisfaction with the drudgery of his career and the constraints of his married life.
Additionally, it encourages and inspires Maggie Massey (Olivia Gilliatt) Lily’s sister, to rethink her own plans for her life with her future husband, as she yearns to have the independence that men have to travel and pick up roots and settle wherever they like. Though fiance Walter Foster (Ned Noyes) is a generous and well-off partner who would give her independence with his money if they married, Maggie is unsure that marriage with Walter is right for her.
This is extremely novel for her generation and gender. Folkways stipulated that women marry well-off men, be provided for, keep house, raise children and be contented to shut up, not make waves and not be ambitious or creative. Maggie views Lily’s and her mother’s lives and questions if she “loves” Walter enough to be bound to him forever, when she may be happier on her own, expressing her talents. Or perhaps she may find and love another.
Thus, Baker cleverly explores the themes of security and safety for both the men and women (then and now) who have chosen either to take risks or remain stuck in a life of mediocrity and misery, whether single or married. As Charley’s neighbor Morton Leslie (Brian Owen) suggests, leaving behind one’s secure boring position and comfortable, familiar life holds tremendous risks for Tennant, for anyone.
Against the romanticism of leaving, various characters throughout the arc of the play’s development pose questions about Tennant’s choice which appears to upset them because it is particular and uniquely not their experience. They ask the following. Will he be able to get a position to support himself easily in Australia, when there are so many thousands looking for employment? What if he fails? What if he proves to be an embarrassment to himself and has to return home to be closed out of his career prospects?
Indeed, Morton Leslie ridicules Tennant’s ambitions and ideas to his face. He insists jokingly, though he is very serious, that Tennant is going to fail. Eventually, this is echoed by others in Charlie’s sphere of influence, including his in-laws (Anthony Cochrane, Amelia White). Lily expresses her upset at Tennant’s leaving because they need his rent. So Tennant’s decision proves economically trying for them, adding instability to their lifestyle. Meanwhile, Lily’s brother Percy (Avery Whitted) at a young age plans to marry Sybil Frost (Claire Saunders) following in the footsteps of what is expected for a young man. This is even after Charley warns him to wait and consider the future because he is too young. In an interesting turning point, Charley tells Percy that he married too young.
On the other side of the argument about why it’s good to take risks, Tennant explains his rationale to Charley. Unlike Charley and the others, Tennant is not married with the burden of having to take care of a wife and children. He is independent, young, makes his own decisions and has no family ties or responsibilities. He has friends, but can make friends anywhere, as he is sociable. So fear of uncertainty has been overcome. He is more afraid of remaining stuck in a miserable position at his job that has little upward mobility.
Thus, if he leaves England, he leaves the class system, the varied oppressions by owners, the stultifying atmosphere of the workplace and the lack of challenges. For him, anything will be possible and only he will stand in the way of that. Leaving, he will learn to redefine himself and seek out a different identity. His excuses and blaming others for his condition will fall away; he will evolve stretching his talents and abilities. The incredible power and courage of Tennant’s decision amazes because he is ending a nullifying pattern before it becomes too entrenched in his soul to escape it. He recognizes and appreciates this knowledge; the others fear it or are blind to it. We empathize with his situation of wanting to seek a better life in another country. It is historic and symbolize the longing of the spirit to evolve from stasis.
Charley has the self-knowledge to understand what is at stake beyond material, pragmatic considerations as does Maggie. They credit Tennant’s decision. The irony is clear. The more the others question and challenge Tennant’s fool-heartiness, the more we realize their fear, their mediocrity, their acceptance of their condition which may be tantamount to a form of slavery. The theme is metaphorical and profound, and Baker nails how difficult behavior change can be when one keeps adding daily to the links in the chain of sameness in one’s life.
When Charley gradually discloses that he agrees with Tennant’s desire for a more fascinating life, the conflict between him and Lily and her family grows. Herein lies the main theme of the metaphor of chains. On the one hand, a secure position chains individuals from falling into the abyss of dissolution and bondages. These include fear of uncertainty: of confronting treacherous risks; of failing and never recovering from poverty and its ills. On the negative side, security deadens one to being adventurous and the chains of miserable dullness hold individuals to a bondage of their own making. Soon they believe they can’t take risks or it is too late to be an adventurer when one is older. Thus, severing the chains of security that bind the inner adventurer to the hackneyed, uninteresting, uncreative, unchallenging existence becomes impossible.
As an example of the terror of atrophying at work Baker introduces the character of Mr. Fenwick (Christopher Gerson) an older employee at the firm where Charley and Tennant clerk. Fenwick visits Charley and affirms Tennant’s decision is a wise one that he, at his age, could never take. And when he announces that there is some question about receiving their bonuses for the year, all the arguments about the benefits of time off (three weeks, a day on the weekend) go out the window.
Indeed, the employees are at the mercy of their employers/owners who can do as they please. There is no guarantee about work conditions and salaries. The propaganda against socialism was rife during Baker’s time as Morton Leslie suggests mocking “socialism.” Baker subtly reveals that such propaganda picked up by louts like Leslie keeps the society in line to produce workers who are “well-oiled,” uncomplaining machines. As for those like Tennant, who would challenge their work conditions? The social culture discourages their ambition or desire to want something better or to break free and move into a more productive, satisfying life. Meanwhile, Maggie’s situation is more complicated with heavier strictures on what opportunities are available to her.
Director Jenn Thompson shepherds her actors to highlight the conflicts, issues and themes in this extraordinary play which resonates for us today in a myriad of ways, politically and socially. Specifically, the actors portray without stereotyping the individuals they inhabit. These characters divide into two camps; those who agree with Tennant (Charley, Maggie) and those who do not.
Townsend’s Tennant seduces Beck’s Charley with his immigration plans, so that Charley can think of nothing else. Jeremy Beck imbues Charley with concern, confusion and distraction with increasing intensity until he reveals his plans to leave for Australia which upend Lily. We know it is coming and we wish him to be successful. And we believe what Lily does not, that he will make a way for her and send for her, after he has made his way in Australia. All she can do is weep; she is devastated.
The tensions that Thompson strives to create with Beck’s superb acting and McHardy’s heartfelt response and sense of doom raise the stakes and bring us to a confluence of feeling. The ending may be controversial, depending upon the audience viewer. Indeed, Thompson has helped to strengthen the brilliance of Baker’s work and reveal her to be a playwright worth revisiting again and again.
The production succeeds from start to finish thanks to the creative team. I particularly enjoyed the actors helping morph the set from the Wilson’s home in Hammersmith to the Massey’s house in Chiswick and then back again. Incorporated into the theatrical experience of the production, it was seamless. Just terrific! Kudos to the following creatives: John McDermott (sets) David Toser (costumes) Paul Miller (lights) M. Florian Staab (sound) and the others that made Thompson’s vision for Baker’s work to come alive.
I cannot praise this presentation enough. COVID-19 was a devastation we have yet to overcome and deal with emotionally and psychically, perhaps. On the other hand this production was worth the wait, well chosen for our time. Go see it. For tickets and availability to Chains that plays with one intermission go to: https://minttheater.org/production/chains/
Posted on July 4, 2022, in NYC Theater Reviews, Off Broadway and tagged Amelia White, Chains, Elizabeth Baker, Jenn Thompson, Jeremy Beck, Laakan Mchardy, The Mint Theater Company. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.