Manchester-born playwright Stanley Houghton (1881-1913) was a feminist. He may not have known this; he probably didn’t even have the word. Nevertheless, given the evidence of his 1912 Hindle Wakes, smartly revived Off-Broadway by the Mint Theater Company, and based, apparently, on the evidence of the many other works created during his brief 32 years, he was a feminist, sure as shootin’.
But as Houghton’s name is new to me (should I have known it?), I register the man’s feminism from the play, which runs through Feb. 17, and the informative program notes. It is another credit to the Mint’s intrepid artistic director, Jonathan Bank, and his 23-year-old habit of (re-) discovering forgotten, or all-but-forgotten, impressive plays.
In fact, it may be that Hindle Wakes is among the most important, most traffic-stopping items yet ferreted out by Bank, which here was handed to his frequent guest director, Gus Kaikkonen. Here’s a mostly serious, sometimes humorous three-act script (offered in two acts with a pause between Act 2 and 3) that may be dated in certain dramatic particulars but was way ahead of its time 106 years ago. Houghton’s opus now lands smack-dab in the middle of the gender-equality headlines of today.
During the action, two young Lancashire women speak up passionately and intelligently about their rightful place in society are not only equal to but, more pointedly, prove superior to the young man with whom they’re involved. There in the mill town of Hindle, they seriously question the gender assumptions of the age, whereas the young merely accepts them and acts accordingly. Hindle Wakes was written before universal suffrage in England — and in the US.
The focal man here is Alan Jeffcote (Jeremy Beck), the son of self-made Nathaniel Jeffcote (Jonathan Hogan) and a former mill hand, now the very grand Mrs. Jeffcote (Jill Tanner). The first of the two Lancashire women is Fanny Hawthorn (Rebecca Noelle Brinkley), a weaver who’s the daughter of mill hand Christopher Hawthorn (Ken Marks) and Mrs. Hawthorn (Sandra Shipley). The second woman is Beatrice Farrar (Emma Geer), the daughter of Sir Timothy Farrar (Brian Reddy).
The group of agitated folks is brought together as a result of Fanny going off on an all-the-trimmings weekend with Alan — when her parents thought she was visiting Blackpool with her good friend Mary. (The never-seen Mary’s fate won’t be revealed here, but it becomes the tip-off to Fanny’s dissembling.)
The crimp in the proceedings is that Alan is a privileged scoundrel: he’s been engaged for a year to Beatrice. Christopher Hawthorn was a schoolboy friend of Nathaniel Jeffcote, and they decide — engagement to Beatrice or no engagement to Beatrice — that Alan and Fanny must wed.
This development is vigorously mooted among all the families — although Mrs. Jeffcote has snobbish objections to the misalliance. Alan isn’t disposed to wed Fanny, either. He regards that weekend with Fanny as a young man’s dalliance having nothing to do with his love for Beatrice.
But the fun — and the “Oh, wow!” timeliness — of Hindle Wakes is how Fanny and Beatrice frame their desires and face the demands put on them by their parents, not to mention Alan’s peevish immaturity. Perhaps more surprising than would seem likely in a play from 1912, they have plenty to say, and they say it with grace, suasion and eloquence. (The influence of Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer on Houghton seems likely as Fanny and Beatrice touch on the social and economic liberation of women.)
What they declare about their sudden circumstances won’t be reported in detail here. But the manner by which they express themselves sounds very much like the women of the post-Harvey Weinstein era. It is rhetoric, and high-flying; to use an overworked word, it’s awesome. And startling!
Kaikkonen draws performances that do great justice to Houghton’s requirements. Brinkley as Fanny and Geer as Beatrice are irresistible finds — young women who radiate smarts, savvy, a honed stage presence, and beauty. (They’re both graduates of the North Carolina School of the Arts, which sends strong actors to Manhattan all the time.)
Beck has been showing up on NYC stages frequently in the last few seasons; he proves he has the wherewithal to play period dramas and comedies with the kind of style that eludes too many other performers. He’s usually the strong gallant. As feckless Alan, Beck shows that he has those chops, too.
The Hawthorn, Jeffcote and Farrar parents are familiar, as well as reliable, local stage vets. Hogan, Tanner, Marks, Shipley and Reddy are authoritative, haughty, censorious and blustering. Also, the entire cast speaks in various Lancashire accents, perhaps modified by dialect coach Amy Stoller for audience understanding.
Now that the Mint is housed at the high-ceilinged Clurman Theatre, at Theatre Row, the company’s productions are fittingly more sumptuous than in their previous West 43rd Street lodgings. Charles Morgan designed the set, which mostly takes place in the wealthier Jeffcote residence; Sam Fleming, the costumes; Christian DeAngelis, the lighting; Jane Shaw, the sound and original music.
One query you might ask is when Bank chose the play for his season. He surely recognized its prescience when he read it, but did he know how cogent and pertinent it would seem at this #metoo moment? The exposure of Alan Jeffcote as a man caught out, a man woefully unable to realize his retrograde position, is worth the admission price. Serendipity can be so jaw-dropping.