The ultra-literary Mint Theater’s latest project is the New York premiere of D.H. Lawrence’s strange, unjustly forgotten play “The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd,” about a mistreated wife at the end of her rope. Helmer Stuart Howard gives the compact piece a delicate staging that accentuates its characters’ depths, and fine performances by Julia Coffey and Eric Martin Brown flesh out its central troubled marriage. The production is a major get for bookworms and theater buffs alike, repping a rare chance to see Lawrence’s world alive on stage.
Howard and dialect coach/dramaturg Amy Stoller immerse the whole production in rural England circa 1914 (when Lawrence wrote the play), with finely-tuned accents and careful work by set designer Marion Williams and costumer Martha Hally. Williams in particular has hit on a great idea for the stage: the Holroyds’ house is a floor and a door, giving it that airy, everbody-knows-your-business feeling familiar to anyone who’s lived in a small town.
To be fair to the locals, the Holroyds’ business is wonderful store-counter gossip. Elizabeth (Coffey) has had about enough of the boozing and skirt-chasing of her husband Charles (Brown), and her two kids, Jack (Dalton Harrod) and Minnie (Amanda Roberts) are near despair. The one ray of sunshine in Elizabeth’s pale little life is local electrician Blackmore (Nick Cordileone). Remember, this is 1914 — Charles is a miner. Electricians are hot stuff.
It’s a setup that could birth any number of melodramatic payoffs. Exchanges from its first act, in fact, sound a little like the Fred MacMurray/Barbara Stanwyck banter from “Double Indemnity” (“I don’t want to be the ruin of you!” he protests. “Don’t you?” she breathes). Howard, however, makes sure the seeds of doubt Lawrence sows in the first act — Blackmore won’t say that he loves Elizabeth, for example, merely that he wants her — are allowed to take root before they bloom into full-fledged disaster an hour later.
The play really becomes interesting when the supposedly monstrous Charles finally stumbles home with a couple of girls (Pilar Witherspoon and Sheila Stasack) in tow. He’s definitely a lout, he certainly upsets the kids, and he’s extremely rude to his wife. But from what he says, and what she returns, it sounds like this marriage went wrong a long time before he started staying out all night with the local trollops.
Worse, Charles seems to know that something — though it’s not clear exactly how much philandering anybody in this play has done — is going on with Blackmore. Charles’ mother (a nice turn by Randy Danson, possibly the world champion player of disagreeable old ladies) suspects something, too.
Lawrence has crafted these characters so carefully they seem like people we know. Charles and Elizabeth’s marriage is not merely bad, it’s recognizably bad and its consequences are clear. For all his hatred of his dad, little Jack appears to be his father’s son and it’s easy to see his capacity to go similarly wrong, even as young as he is. The characters’ virtues and vices are both well-realized by the cast and quintessentially Lawrence’s own.
This is the second Lawrence play the Mint has dug up in the last few years (the writer’s 1911 “The Daughter-In-Law” had its first Stateside production from the company in 2003), and it’s a very unusual piece. The attitudes and prejudices of century-old smalltown England don’t jibe with the prevailing outlook in 21st century Manhattan, but the production’s total commitment to the era draws us in, rather than trying to translate it for us. The result is something totally unexpected and unavailable anywhere else in New York theater.