Rutherford and Son
At the TimeLine Theatre Company by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Rutherford and Son” has an interesting history. The English domestic drama was written by Githa Sowerby under the name K. G. Sowerby to disguise the fact that the author was a woman. The play won considerable praise when it opened in 1912 but when it was learned that the author was actually a woman the play closed. Such was the sexism of the age in England. “Rutherford and Son” lay mostly forgotten until a revival in 1980 revealed that the play was a neglected classic. Since then, “Rutherford and Son” has been popular in the United Kingdom though relatively ignored in the United States.
The brilliance of the revival now playing at the TimeLine Theatre validates Sowerby’s drama as one of the major works of the 20th century. It may be daunting for American theaters because the actors must master the thick dialect of its northern English setting. The play probably could be as effective switched to a setting in the USA because it deals with family conflicts and social tensions that are universal.
The TimeLine has opted to present “Rutherford and Son” as it must have looked and sounded back in 1912. The setting remains the home of Rutherford in the early 1900’s. The man is an industrialist who operates a glass factory in the bleak moors of northern England. He is an autocratic man who dominates his three grown children, sons John and Richard and daughter Janet. The play is basically a portrait of a narrow minded and dictatorial father who controls the lives of his frustrated and eventually rebellious children.
The play’s narrative hook is a formula John discovers that would revitalize the family business, now operating at a loss. John wants to sell the formula to his father to finance a new life for him and his wife Mary and their infant son. The outraged Rutherford claims he has gone to the expense of educating John as a gentlemen to take over the family business and should receive the formula without charge. Rutherford furiously demands that John hand over the formula, insisting that the business-saving discovery should be his without cost. Additional conflict comes when Rutherford learns that daughter Janet, unmarried and in her mid 30’s, has been secretly seeing a factory workman named Martin.
In spite of Martin having served as Rutherford’s right-hand man for years, the father is infuriated that his daughter should consort with a common worker. The result is the breakup of the love affair between Janet and Martin who Rutherford fires. Rutherford orders Janet out of his house and son John leaves the country to build a new life, leaving his wife and baby son behind. About the same time, the timid Richard also leaves home, unable to endure his father’s continual dismissive cruelty.
The abundant plot twists have their dramatic value but they primarily allow the playwright to etch a group portrait of a family finally disintegrating under the pressure from its ruling patriarch, each character realized with superb precision and depth by the TimeLine ensemble.
“Rutherford and Son” is built on the personality of the imperious father and TimeLine is fortunate in casting the great Frances Guinan of Steppenwolf Theatre fame for the role. Guinan’s Rutherford is intimidating and domineering, a character audience can love to hate while still grudgingly admire for the man’s ramrod dedication to his factory’s survival.
Among Rutherford’s three children daughter Christina Gorman’s Janet is the most vividly realized, a portrait of a woman who has lived unappreciated in her father’s household while aching for release into a better life. Her love affair with Martin is her ticket to freedom and the scene when Christina sees the man slipping away from her is stunning in its power and heartbreak.
Rochelle Therrien’s Mary starts out as a woman of no status in the Rutherford household but ends up a survivor among the domestic wreckage of departures by John’s three children. Therrien’s Mary even earns Rutherford’s grudging admiration as his match in calculation and manipulation.
Michael Holding and August Forman are first rate as the two sons who finally depart the Rutherford household, fleeing their father’s oppressive personality. Matt Bowdren is very strong as Martin, betraying John by giving the formula to Rutherford, resulting in the loss of a friend and his job and letting the aching Janet slip away. The flawless ensemble is completed by Jeannie Affelder as Rutherford’s crusty sister and Mrs. Henderson, a woman who bursts into the Rutherford home to demand John reinstate her dismissed son from the factory, a study in maternal ferocity.
The TimeLine production is a masterpiece of historical recreation. Michelle Lilly’s single set replicates the interior of the Rutherford home as it surely must have looked in the early 1900’s. Lilly’s design is much complemented by the properties designed by Vivian Knouse. Alexa Rutherford (presumably no relation to the title character) designed a wardrobe of period costumes that perfectly establish look of the time. Brandon Wardell designed the atmospheric lighting and Andrew Hanson designed the sound plan. And a huge round of applause goes to Eve Breneman for her work in getting the regional accents so credible.
Mechelle Moe has directed the production beautifully, orchestrating her skilled cast so seamlessly that the drama looks inevitable in its conflicts. I didn’t see or hear a single false emotional note, no matter how high passions ran. It is difficult to imagine the play looking or sounding any other way, the ultimate compliment to any production.
There is always something special about watching a resurrected play that turns out to be some kind of masterpiece. The TimeLine has a history of placing such discoveries before its audiences. And seeing Frances Guinan in a new venue is a pleasure and a privilege. We can’t get enough of the man on local stages.
‘Rutherford and Son’ gets a rating of.
“Rutherford and Son” runs through January 12 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday 2 p.m. Tickets are $42 to $57. Call (773) 281-8463 or visit timelinetheatre.com.