Theater Review: RUTHERFORD AND SON (TimeLine)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 15, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


You can’t keep a good play down. Produced under the pseudonym of K.G. Sowerby, the Edwardian drama Rutherford and Son was a huge hit in 1912 — until the playwright was later revealed as a woman, Githa Sowerby. Perhaps due to male resentment of the play’s depiction of a brutish dad, it disappeared from the boards for 80 years — until inevitably revived in the U.K. It’s reached the U.S. too, its latest return in Chicago. TimeLine Theatre requites Sowerby with Mechelle Moe’s earnest presentation of a play for today written 106 years ago.

With its depiction of a familial nest of vipers, it seems the perfect British equivalent of The Little Foxes.

The dour setting is the drawing room of an industrialist’s manse in Grantley, a factory town in northern England just before World War I. Michelle Lilly’s set surrounds this sumptuous parlor with menacing pipes reflecting the sour source of its splendor. “A bull-headed capitalist who crushes his own children beneath the wheels of industry,” Rutherford (Francis Guinan, a snarling patriarch) ruthlessly runs a glass works company at the expense of family, friends and workers. The family’s motto, “Plain and Lasting,” stands as much for frugality and stubbornness as simplicity and permanence.

Here Rutherford, unrestrained by his milquetoast ninny of a wife (Jeannie Affelder), cows and bullies his kids. It’s his perverse way of grooming them for the succession. His heir apparent John (Michael Holding in full fettle) has supposedly married beneath him to a sweet support named Mary (Rochelle Therrien, a velvet Valkyrie). John and Mary have returned to Yorkshire with their beloved child Tony to escape poverty in London. This driven inventor has perfected and wants to patent a new cost-saving metal alloy that he hopes to sell to his father and possibly save the old firm from succumbing to debt. But his sad dad thinks John owes it to him and the firm to give it gratis.

The other, equally neglected, children are Janet (Christina Gorman), a 36-year-old spinster hungry for hugs, and devout Richard (August Foreman), a curate looking after the folks that his father exploits. Adding to the cast of casualties is Martin (Matt Bowden), Rutherford’s mill manager, a vassal whose loyalty to his boss passes all understanding. He will soon discover the reward of fidelity to an amoral mogul.

Once assembled, Sowerby engineers a series of clashes between Rutherford and his unhappy dependents, including vitriolic, proto-feminist denunciations by a daughter and the mother of an unfairly treated factory hand. But then there’s Mary: Much like Ibsen’s Nora, Rutherford’s daughter-in-law, who will exact any sacrifices for her son, is a marvel of retribution. This undervalued wife and mother forces a bitter bargain that Rutherford never anticipated.

Though ahead of its time with its unsparing portrayal of women defying circumstances and indifference, Rutherford and Son (its title an indictment of smooth sexism) is universal in its protest against untapped talent and wasted worth. Mind you, this is no holiday show to warm your hands at its hearth. Flat and mean, it’s a despairing look at the pointless power plays that pit generations and genders against each other to no one’s profit.

Despite the thick Yorkshire accents, all seven performances persuade: A family feud stands in for much more social strife. The one drawback is that Guinan’s oppressive paterfamilias doesn’t seem sufficiently nasty to deserve the scorching calumny he inspires. He seems more in over his head than, as written, calculating cruel.

Unlike the R.M.S. Titanic, which foundered in the same year, Rutherford and Son remains unsinkable.

photos by Lara Goetsch

Rutherford and Son
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8;
Sun at 2; (check for holiday date changes)
ends on January 12, 2020
for tickets, 773.281.8463 x 6 or TimeLine

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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