‘Rutherford and Son’ at TimeLine: A tyrant
and some children, all grown and all bruised
“Rutherford and Son” by Githa Sowerby, directed by Mechelle Moe, at TimeLine Theatre through Jan. 12. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
The old man – old man Rutherford – sees the world as a reflection of himself, and he measures and values everyone in it, starting with his family, on a scale of their loyalty to him and their usefulness to the business enterprise that has consumed his life.
Imagine being his son – the subordinate and emotionally shackled element in “Rutherford and Son,” playwright Githa Sowerby’s grinding examination of early 20th-century British industrialism and its social ethos, which now storms the stage with withering force at TimeLine Theatre.
Katherine Githa Sowerby (1876-1970), though surely unknown to a great many American theatergoers, was a brilliant English writer and penetrating observer who gained considerable, if fleeting, fame with “Rutherford and Son,” her first play, in 1912. While she produced another half-dozen works for the stage, she never recaptured the success of “Rutherford.”
A socialist and feminist, Sowerby wrote with a keen awareness of the place, plight and constraints of women and men alike. Her play “A Man and Some Women,” revived several years ago at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, displays her acute insight into the pressures that a man’s world places on men.
If “Rutherford and Son” harkens back to Ibsen in its unvarnished realism, taut dialogue and narrative clarity, it also foreshadows the likes of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. Compassion, tenderness and hope are but glimmers in the cold, hard circumstances of this smart and beguiling play.
Family patriarch Rutherford (Francis Guinan in a performance of indelible irascibility), by his own reckoning old at age 60, has nurtured the glass manufacturing business handed down to him by his father and his grandfather. He is a figure of unbending authoritarianism, at the plant and at home. His wife is deceased. He has three adult children: disappointments all.
Richard, the younger of two sons (limned with benign deference by August Forman), has to Rutherford’s mind squandered his life in a commitment to the clergy. The elder son, John (in Michael Holding a credible bundle of secrecy, whining and fragile pride), just seems to keep spinning his wheels to neither purpose nor profit. John, together with his wife Mary and their infant son, lives in the Rutherford household. Old Rutherford views John with disdain.
At least John registers in the old man’s consciousness, which can scarcely be said of his eldest offspring, a daughter, Janet. She is 36, a spinster wedded for life to making herself useful around the Rutherford home. As she will never give her father an heir, she’s not so much a daughter to him as she is an ever-present object, a hand to help him remove his shoes at the end of a long day.
Yet, amid the skulking and maneuvering and protestations of Rutherford and son, it is Janet’s direct, clear, implacable voice of actuality in the person of Christina Gorman that keeps our perception in balance – even if weary, cynical Janet cannot make her desperate brother John see what’s really going on around him. When she points out that he doth protest too much his resolve to break free of his father, John still refuses to hear her.
Gorman’s sympathetic, vulnerable Janet catches the imagination early and never releases her grip. It is this hapless, resigned soul who embodies all the futility and disappointment suffered by siblings who can’t measure up to the expectations of an iron-fisted father. Yet clever Janet is skipping stones in a glass house. She has her secret, too. And it will come crashing down on her.
Then there’s Martin, not a son but valued by Rutherford almost as if he were of his own blood. Middle-aged Martin (the doggedly, quietly dutiful Matt Bowdren) has been with Rutherford a long time, and it is to Martin alone that the old man will turn for counsel. Though Martin is no more than a working man, a class that Rutherford roundly despises, it is Martin who has the indomitable patriarch’s implicit trust.
The churn in all of this is that Rutherford’s glass business is in financial trouble, though the boss so far has managed to keep the bad news to himself. But other enterprises in the area, the north of England, have faced strikes. The coal supply has been affected. Unbeknownst to the old man, feckless son John has in fact hit upon an invention – still untested – that could transform glass manufacture and, in all probability, save the company.
The invention is John’s ticket to independence and his claim to his father’s better regard, if not respect. When John reveals the broad idea – not the particulars – of his new concept to his father, but insists on a healthy financial arrangement before he will hand it over, the senior Rutherford is appalled and outraged. But maybe something can be worked out, after all.
The fascination of Guinan’s Rutherford is his outward appearance as a reasonable fellow always ready to hear the other side of an argument, always open to a justifiable complaint, a better way to go about something. But in fact, this tyrant-in-heart never gives ground on anything, and he operates on a plane well above the inconvenience of moral scruple.
No one escapes the long shadow of old Rutherford. Well, almost no one. I mentioned that John has a wife, Mary, played most of the way with properly mousy reticence and subservience by Rochelle Therrien. Mary may plead, but she never whines or whimpers. She also gets this vain tyrant over a barrel at a ruthless game he understands. Call it the art of the deal.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreInChicago.com
I have never seen Francis Guinan give a bad performance. Nor do I here. He is simply miscast. Irascible when he should be ruthless; obstinate when he should be belligerent; demanding when he should be commanding. At the end when Mary marshals his comeuppance, he waves a white flag before a single shot is fired. The high quality of the play itself covers up the weakness. But imagine what a towering production we would have witnessed with the likes of a George C. Scott, or a Lee J. Cobb, or a Fritz Weaver on the boards. Just imagine.