Like some forgotten treasure found in the attic, the Old Vic’s radiant revival of “The Winslow Boy” — now presented on Broadway by the Roundabout Theater — practically glows in the dark. Terence Rattigan based his 1946 drama on the actual experience of an upper-middle-class family whose legal defense of a son’s honor became a cause celebre when its brief against the English political establishment was debated in London’s High Court. A top-drawer ensemble masterfully helmed by Lindsay Posner and headed by Roger Rees do the honors in this tense legal drama, which Rattigan has shrewdly taken out of the courtroom and into the drawing room.
Along with “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “The Browning Version” and other works by the prolific scribe, “The Winslow Boy” is a flawless example of the well-made play. Ironically, that stylistic perfection became a liability during the 1950s, when a new generation of Angry Young Men with their strenuously messy plays drove Rattigan off the English stage. But we seem to be more tolerant of excellence these days, especially when it’s packaged as elegantly as this Old Vic production, which arrives in New York after a successful London run last year.
The family that gathers on Peter McKintosh’s modest set of a comfortable home in Kensington looks poised for a tasteful British drawing-room comedy, circa 1912. Arthur Winslow (Rees), a banker and the head of this respectable household, is a stern but fair parent to his three children: Dickie (Zachary Booth), a good-natured slacker in his first year at Oxford; Catherine (Charlotte Parry), an intelligent young woman and ardent suffragette; and 14-year-old Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford), the baby of the family and a cadet at a prestigious naval academy. Grace Winslow (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the materfamilias and manager of the domestic affairs in this house, is effortlessly charming and intrinsically ladylike, as such women are wont to be. Even the elderly maid, Violet (Henny Russell), seems a contented member of this orderly household.
The destabilizing crisis comes in the middle of the first act, after the celebration of Catherine’s engagement to John Watherstone (Chandler Williams), a young man with excellent prospects. Ronnie unexpectedly arrives home from his naval academy with the shocking news that he has been expelled for stealing a five-shilling postal order. Everyone in the family is aghast, none more so than Arthur, whose sense of honor is mortally offended. But once convinced of Ronnie’s innocence, he commits himself (and, without consultation, every other member of the family as well) to a punishing two-year battle to clear his son’s name and the family’s honor.
The play’s focus then shifts to Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola), a celebrated barrister who submits young Ronnie to a grueling legal cross-examination that is mercilessly cruel but theatrically riveting. Satisfied that the boy is innocent, he throws himself into the case with a fervor that rivals Arthur’s own. An enigmatic figure in Nivola’s carefully calibrated perf, Sir Robert seems wholly committed to his legal profession, to the point of having no personal life — or feelings —- whatsoever. But having met this buttoned-up Englishman in other Rattigan plays, we’re prepared for the gradual revelation that the man’s emotional reserve is a protective mask.
Arthur tossed aside his own protective covering when he committed to his Quixotic campaign on behalf of his son. Indeed, there’s something very brave but also half-crazed about Rees’s feverish portrayal of the old banker, whose obsession with truth and justice (or is it his stubborn refusal to admit defeat?) costs him his health, his fortune, and his family’s security.
The long, drawn-out, Dickensian lawsuit takes its toll on everyone else in the Winslow household. (The rather endearing exception is Milford’s sweetly clueless Ronnie, who recovers from his ordeal with the resilience of youth.) These personal breakdowns are reflected in subtle character changes that remain under the strict control of the performers. Mastrantonio allows the ever-gracious Grace a single, flashing outburst of anger that somehow adds to her dignity. Booth wins our respect for the good sport he makes of Dickie when the family’s financial misfortunes spell the end to his Oxford education. Parry (who played a Cecily with backbone in “The Importance of Being Earnest”) raises the emotional temperature when Catherine breaks off her engagement to support the family’s cause: Let Right Be Done.
In English drama, the discreet setting of a drawing room seems to lend itself to discussions of Big Ideas. “The Winslow Boy” reflects Rattigan’s preoccupation with the personal price involved in the pursuit of justice. But he also questions the bedrock assumption that truth conquers all, or that no sacrifice is too great to uphold an ideal. Although there’s no mention of it in the play, in real life the boy whose honor was at stake offered it up in World War I, when he died at the age of 19 in the first battle of Ypres. Makes you think.