Review: Sons and mothers have a blast in The Stepdaughter

DH Lawrence, known for his novels that explore sexual desire and fulfillment against a backdrop of dehumanizing industrialization and oppressive social norms, did not achieve much recognition as a playwright during his lifetime. In 1913, during his first important work, Sons and loverswas released, he was also busy on the play The beautiful girl, many of whose themes overlap with this novel. The play had to wait until 1967 for its first production (37 years after Lawrence’s death), and by then its name was associated with controversial and sexually explicit novels that scandalized polite society and delighted furtive readers. But if the public expected titillations in The beautiful girlthey were probably disappointed. Lady Chatterley’s Lover it’s not.

The Mint Theater revived the play in 2003 and has done it again now in a brilliantly acted but sometimes exhausting production at New York City Center. The ensemble cast, under the direction of Martin Platt (who also directed the 2003 production), bring Lawrence’s characters to life with their thick East Midlands dialect (dialect designer Amy Stoller provides a short glossary of words in the program). Sandra Shipley plays Mrs. Gascoyne, the stern mother of two coal miners who are psychologically attached to her in a way that makes them ill-suited to be husbands. Joe (Ciaran Bowling), who fakes an arm injury to get workers’ compensation, still lives at home, while his rude brother, Luther (Tom Coiner), got married after meeting the educated Minnie (Amy Blackman).

Sandra Shipley as Mrs. Gascoyne and Ciaran Bowling as her son Joe in The beautiful girl.
(© Maria Baranova)

In the midst of an impending and potentially dangerous mining strike, the family learns that their neighbor’s daughter, Mrs. Purdy (Polly McKie), is pregnant and that Luther is the father. The news sends Minnie into a spiral about her marriage, but she realizes that Mrs. Gascoyne has made Luther an unambitious man-child who cannot function as a husband. It’s only after Minnie confronts them with this truth that the family begins to deal with the psychological slavery they’ve held themselves in for so many years.

On the one hand, it’s fascinating to watch the situations we read about in Lawrence’s novels play out on stage. Coiner deserves special mention for her rough portrayal of Luther, and Blackman provides an excellent match with her Minnie, their clashes illustrating the class struggle that Lawrence likely witnessed with his own parents. We also see Lawrence’s preoccupation with the psychic tensions that exist between dominating mothers and their sons in scenes that would send shivers of joy to any Freudian critic. As Sons and lovers, The beautiful girl revels in a good old-fashioned Oedipus complex.

Bill Clarke’s decor, depicting Luther and Minnie’s modest dining room and kitchen, and Jeff Nellis’ dim lighting create a sepia backdrop for the two-and-a-half-hour family drama. Holly Poe Durbin’s period working-class costumes blend seamlessly into the characters’ surroundings to create an atmosphere of quiet unrest, in response to the greedy management of mining outside and family threats inside. Plates are smashed and strong words are exchanged as the family fights and Minnie unleashes her resentment towards her good-for-nothing husband and overbearing stepmother. It makes for engaging drama.

But there’s no getting around the play’s long, woolly plot. Lawrence’s chattering scenes sometimes test patience even without the challenge of tuning an ear to the characters’ distinctive dialect, and the sentimental ending comes so unexpectedly that we wonder for a moment if this is in fact the end. The beautiful girl marked a promising start for Lawrence the playwright; yet it is, overall, a learning piece that allowed him to explore themes that he would pursue more deeply and successfully in his novels. As an insightful example of a great writer learning his craft, The beautiful girl has value, but it’s not a great game.

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About Marjorie C. Hudson

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