June 8, 2011

"A Little Journey" Offers Another Nostalgic Trip

Is there a harder working or more admirable head of a theater company than Jonathan Bank, the artistic director of the Mint Theater Company?  Bank has not only delivered a welcoming message at every Mint show I’ve ever seen but he usually stays through the entire performance and mingles with audience members during the intermissions.

Now, I realize that I usually attend press performances and so that may account for some of the attentiveness.  But the Mint specializes in neglected plays and Bank is the guy who ferrets them out and frequently writes the smart program notes to explain why attention should again be paid. And he’s a tireless cheerleader for playwrights whom he feels have been unfairly forgotten. High among them is Rachel Crothers, the author of the company’s latest production, A Little Journey, which opened on Monday night.

Crothers was a big deal during the first third of the 20th century when around 30 of her plays opened on Broadway. Her mother was one of the first female doctors in Illinois and Crothers, who began making up plays as a child, was an ardent feminist who wrote about smart and spunky female characters and the challenges they faced.  

Both Katharine Cornell and Tallulah Bankhead got their first big breaks in one of Crothers' biggest hits Nice People. Joan Crawford later starred in the movie version of her most famous work Susan and God. How I wish that Crothers, who died in 1958, were alive and turning out similarly meaty roles for today’s actresses to sink their teeth into.

A Little Journey was first produced in 1918, about half way through Crothers' streak, and was nominated for the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama but lost to Why Marry?, a contemporary comedy about a modern couple who opt for cohabitation over marriage.

There’s a modern couple at the heart of A Little Journey too.  They are Julie, a young woman, who like Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, is forced to fend for herself when she is disinherited by the wealthy aunt who raised her; and Jim, a self-made man who has found himself and a new life in Montana. They meet cute on a train bound west when the cash-strapped Julie loses her ticket and Jim gallantly offers to buy a replacement.

Their traveling companions include a cross-section of America at the time: an old lady accompanied by her granddaughter, a glad-handing salesman, a nouveaux-riche matron, a haughty businessman, a poor woman with an infant, two callow college boys, the officious train conductor and a longanimous Pullman porter.

The journey they take together is both geographic (from the tightly-ordered East to the more broad-minded West) and emotional (from alienation to a sense of community, which includes the black porter—showing that Crothers could be just as progressive on race as she was on gender).

The acting is all first class. Samantha Soule may be a touch too contemporary as Julie and McCaleb Burnett struck me as too handsome for Jim but they provide strong anchors for the show. And Laurie Birmingham who is adept with both the laugh notes and the grace notes of the rich matron is a standout, bringing to mind Shelley Winters, who also would have had a ball with the role. 

But the real star may be Roger Hanna’s clever merry-go-round-style set which revolves as the focus moves from one traveler to another.  In fact, despite what one assumes must be a limited budget, all the design elements are handsomely done and Jackson Gay’s fluid direction shows them all off to good effect. 

Crothers can be wickedly funny in spots and the audience at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended had a great time. I liked it too.  Kind of.  I have to confess that the Mint shows—many of them set at the turn of the 20th century, many of them with two intermissions—are beginning to look alike to me.

“Have you ever seen a Mint show that you really loved ?” Bill asked as we walked up 43rd Street on our way to an after-show-supper at the West Bank Cafe.  I had to say No.  But I also have to say there’s no company I admire more.

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