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/
The Price of Thomas Scott, currently at Theatre Row is an interesting period piece which has at its core central issues about conscience, upholding the values one professes to believe in and sacrificing material well being for spiritual health and soul wholeness. Written by Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962) the playwright who hailed from a religious family wrote in the early last century about London’s working classes, shop girls, clerks and the ambitiously upwardly mobile.
In focusing a spotlight on their dreams, foibles and mores, Baker entertains with an eye to unraveling key theses about the human condition. Despite fashion and social folkways, if you transplant her characters in a modern prototypical setting, the results would initially appear vastly different, but the similarities in the characters’ issues would be stark and familiar. The reason why is because the moral, ethical and personal questions her characters confront, are issues we also confront at one time or another, if we have a conscience. There’s the rub!
The setting is the back parlor of Thomas Scott’s Draper’s shop (cloth wholesaler, haberdasher) where daughter Annie Scott (the delightful and winning Emma Geer) and son Leonard (the vibrant Nick LaMedica) discuss their ambitions and dreams, all of which require a large amount of money that their father does not have. The Scotts are part of the declining middle class and the children are strivers. However, Thomas Scott’s business is not doing well because his competitors drive down the prices, and the costs, as always, seem to eat into any profits. In short, Scott wishes to sell his business, retire and go to a beautiful place in Wales, something his wife has been longing for as she is tired of city living.
One factor that we note immediately is that this is a religious family and Mr. Scott (Donald Corren’s portrayal is modulated and has none of the self-righteous tone of the “religious”) upholds his beliefs and encourages his family to attend church and eschew all the latest fads and fashions, even attending theater performances. Though he doesn’t view theater as sinful, actually, he characterizes it as immoral (this gets a laugh from the audience). He suggests he can read the about it and that time and money could be spent better with other pursuits.
After a scene where lodger Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize) and his friend Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding) waltz with Annie and her friend May (Ayana Workman), as brother Leonard plays for them, we understand that the young people wish to break away from the repressed culture in which they live. A waltz seems harmless enough. But we realize from the paranoid and hurried way that they rearrange the furniture which they moved to dance, that Mr. Scott would not be pleased to see them carrying on. Apparently, he doesn’t approve of dancing either. The focal point of his life seems to be church, praying, Bible study and singing religious hymns and he encourages his family to follow his upright example which they do to his face with a few lapses behind his back.
The conflict slowly develops. Mr. Scott fears running down his business to bankruptcy. And the only way out for his and his children’s dreams to come true would be to sell. However, no one is interested. And because of the other sales of neighbors’ business it appears he will not get a particularly good price for his shop. The quandray stresses him and his family who understand the stakes and the potential doom if there is no buyer.
When a buyer appears as a recommendation from elsewhere, Mr. Scott is thrilled as is the family. Following the adjurations of his friend to ask for an excellent price, he holds out for a price which would answer all of the desires of the family. Indeed, money answers all things, a Biblical scripture the play does not allude to. The 500 pound settlement would allow him to retire to Wales with his wife, set his son on a fine career path and pay for his daughter’s dream to go to Paris to learn the latest styles and return to London to employ her craft.
However, there is a fly in the ointment which may prevent their dreams from ever being realized. And the huge fly is Mr. Scott’s values and conscience. He is not enamored of the buyer or his trade.
His wife Ellen (the fine Tracy Sallows) respects him as do his children. However, if he allows his conscience to rule over their happiness, then their dreams and his own will turn to ashes. Unless a buyer shows up that he approves of, he may go bankrupt and have to close the shop without any money to forestall their downward economic decline. He is a religious man. He will have to turn to His God and his conscience for his final decision and after that the outcome which will be “good” or “ill.” When in trouble, rely on miracles!
Mr. Scott’s choices and decisions mirror those conundrums faced by every world leader, every businessman, every head of the household who has control of others’ economic well being. If one is ethical and moral, the choices are actually harder. If one is amoral and believes that it is all right to wipe all competitors and settle for an “I win you lose” result, then there is no problem making the decision, but a huge problem with the result especially if the rule of law is in force. On the other hand morality, ethics and conscience create immense problems and crises. Living by one’s own standards stolidly without hypocrisy is the problem especially if there are temptations. And it is especially the problem if one expects others to live by one’s own standards though theirs may be different. Of course if the standards are high moral ones then it should be clear and the individual should be respected for living up to them. But relativity creeps in depending upon the situation and definition of “high moral standards.”
For example racists believe their discrimination is for the common good and a “high moral standard.” Conservative religious individuals believe the LBGTQ crowd are twisted and sick and should be rejected until they are turned to normal heterosexuality. A head of the household believes he must live by his values though it will impoverish his family and take food out of their mouths. These individuals, if they stick to their beliefs unequivocally, are not hypocrites selling their souls to be accepted by others. They have defined their actions as belief and conviction, though their actions would be described in the culture at large as discriminatory and loathsome. In the case of the head of the household, money and family are less important than his/her conscience. Some might argue that this man should not even have a family if he does not properly take care of them. Questions of ethics, morality and following one’s conscience are invariably complex, as playwright Baker intriguingly points out.
Above all the play is fascinating in the questions it asks. The Mr. Scotts of the world who follow conscience to the exclusion of other reasonable considerations are as extreme as the amoralists whose greed and self-dealing may cause death, misery and devastation. Applying Baker’s questions to a current problem today, might be as follows. To fight against corporate hegemony and abuse of other cultures must one eschew all technology because of its inherent slave footprint to not be a hypocrite or amoralist as well? Can one completely eliminate one’s slave footprint and abide in First World country status knowing that other cultures do without allowing us to “do with?” Thus, living in social modernity carried to this absurd conclusion means living as a hypocrite unlike Mr. Thomas or living as a self-dealing amoralist who ignores the ramifications of his behavior.
The Price of Thomas Scott brings to life the ethics and morality of “modern” living in exposing the human condition which is as ancient as “Adam and Eve in the “Garden.” And though the play concludes on an upward note with the next generation “resolving” the issues in a lighthearted way, what they do is “in your face” ironic and rebellious by the standards of Mr. Scott. In that rebellion lays the foundation of a greater crisis of the culture which in a decade or so moves into the excesses of “The Roaring Twenties,” eventual crash and great Depression which was effected as a partial response to the reactionary time of prohibition, religious revivalism and strict morality that Mr. Scott embraces. For every action there is a reaction, especially when ethics, morality, hypocrisy and soul selling are at issue.
The production by The Mint Theater Company gives precise attention to the spectacle of theatrical performance and time period which is as always a pleasure to see from the props to the staging. Kudos to Vicki R. Davis (Sets) Hunter Kaczorowski (Costumes) Christian Deangelis (Lights) Jane Shaw Sound & Musical Arrangements) and others which helped to make this a beautifully rendered production. The hats are magnificent and made me wish for a time beyond weddings and funerals when such hats were in vogue. (not really…just the hats)
Special kudos to the director Jonathan Banks and the cast who deliver a measured and authentic view into the past of how individuals like Mr. Scott and his family made hard decisions and stuck by them without taint of hypocrisy or corruption of their own consciences. Would that current day politicos were more like Mr. Scott who quails at selling his soul for Mammon. (The question in the play is, is that what he really is doing or that he believes he is doing?) In light of our president and the actors who surround him in the administration and influencers in foreign lands, Mr. Scott’s problem with (X) appears quaint. So much more the irony of this play being produced now when the problems of selling one’s soul for betraying a nation and its democratic processes are paramount. Bravo, Mint Theater Company!