When a strong — and eventually moving — play breaks through the August torpor, a reviewer doesn’t want to delay the good news. It’s not a new play, either. It’s Lillian Hellman’s Days to Come, written in 1936 as the follow-up to her reputation-making work, The Children’s Hour. Actually, it may not be that script, exactly. The first production failed after seven performances. Maintaining her belief in it, however, Hellman tinkered over the years until a praised Off-Broadway revival in 1971 became the approved version.
Digression: I sat next to Hellman once. The occasion was a screening of the 1965 movie adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. As a longtime Hellman fan, I recognized her as I sat down but decided not to thank her for the plays she’d written until the screening was over. On came the Tony Richardson film, which I thought could hardly have been more vulgar. Through it, however, Hellman roared with gruff laughter. When it was over, I couldn’t wait to get away from her, but it never crossed my mind to get away from her plays — even after she did herself no favors by truth-stretching in her 1973 memoir Pentimento.
A few years later, when writer Mary McCarthy famously said of Hellman, during an interview with TV host Dick Cavett, “I think every word she writes is false, including ‘and’ and ‘but,’” she turned people against not only Hellman but against her works as well. True, there have been some NYC revivals of Hellman’s The Little Foxes, perhaps because marquee names (Elizabeth Taylor, Stockard Channing, Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon) set their sights on playing its larger-than-life protagonist, Regina Giddins. But productions of any of her other plays have been few and far between.
Now it looks as if Jonathan Bank, the Mint Theater Company’s intrepid producing artistic director, has noticed that Hellman’s “and”’s and “but”’s link some important themes — all underpinned by the potent morality that was always Hellman’s stock-in-trade. Indeed, when McCarthy excoriated Hellman, she overlooked her frenemy’s strengths.
In Days to Come, the Rodmans and their brush manufacturing company have supported the small town of Callom, OH, for three generations. Now it’s the middle of the Depression and the workers are striking for higher wages, which current owner Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull) is unable to pay. He might, were he to cheapen materials, but he refuses to do so.
In the Rodman living room, two other family members come and go with varying attitudes towards the ongoing strike. Sister Cora (Mary Bacon), a spoiled rich girl, and Andrew’s sadly dissatisfied wife, Julie (Janie Brookshire), cross figurative swords. Andrew’s best friend, Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy), a manipulative lawyer with a sometime-reciprocated yen for Julie, and servants Hannah (Kim Martin-Cotton) and Lucy (Betsy Hogg), circulate about, eyes and ears always open.
Also visiting, with various motives, are Andrew’s boyhood chum and factory worker Thomas Firth (Chris Henry Coffey), the barely welcome union organizer Leo Whelan (Roderick Hill), and the slick, devious strike breaker Sam Wilkie (Dan Dailey), with sparring henchmen Mossy Dowel (Geoffrey Allen Murphy) and Joe Easter (Evan Zes).
Notice that Hellman has neatly collected colorful representatives from all strike factions and allied them with, or set them against, one another. She forcibly embeds them in situations that involve this Ohio community, but, just as forcibly, involve the Rodmans’ private lives. (You could see this ceaselessly argumentative family as the obverse of the humanitarian family Hellman depicts in her famous play Watch on the Rhine.)
As conditions worsen, things grow more complicated — largely ignited by the problems that Wilkie intends to inflict among the strikers and the strike-breaking workers that he imports, some of whom he converts to sheriff’s deputies. One complication, for example, is between Whalen, the union organizer, and discontented housewife Julie. Another is how Andrew fails to see how Wilkie’s plot will fracture his standing with Thomas and with, more broadly, the whole of the working class of Callom.
To enflame matters still further, Hellman — spoiler alert — alarmingly inserts a murder. She cleverly allows the spectators to witness the deed (Rod Kinter is the fight director) so when an innocent man is accused of the murder, the suspense is heightened. The complications that arise from this development unleash a cluster of heart-rending events, including those that explain the devastating implications of Hellman’s title.
When Days to Come debuted, Hellman was criticized for not taking sides in her many-sided set-up. But the playwright landing neither here nor there is an enormous plus: she takes all sides with sympathy. (Sound designer Jane Shaw knows what she’s doing — sneaking in Woody Guthrie’s “Which Side Are You On?” at one point and “Ill Wind” at another.)
Days to Come is not perfect. Especially when the (rather contrived) murder occurs, things threaten to devolve from dramatic to melodramatic. Fortunately, J.R. Sullivan directs Days to Come with exquisite precision. There seems to be nothing he hasn’t guided the cast to do — or encouraged them to do. Itemizing all the subtleties conveyed by the actors would require a review twice the length of this one, but, for example, watch Hill wrestle with the dilemmas facing Whelan, or Bull as he realizes Andrew’s ethical flaws, or Brookshire conveying Julie’s pain over some of the wrong emotional choices she’s made, or Bacon enjoying showing off, from start to end, Cora’s unfailing self-involvement.
This revival is so accomplished that I hope Bank does what he often does — revives a few more of the playwright’s works. For while McCarthy disdained Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, her longtime companion, didn’t. Since he incorporated his own brand of nour-ish morality in his literature, he surely wouldn’t have sustained interest in Hellman had he not admired her convictions. To paraphrase the playwright herself when famously appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she could not — and would not — cut her conscience to fit any year’s theatrical fashions.