Angel Reed and Gareth Saxe in The Daughter-in-Law(Photo © Richard Termine)
Angel Reed and Gareth Saxe in The Daughter-in-Law
(Photo © Richard Termine)
In January 1913, D.H. Lawrence wrote to the critic and author Edward Garnett: "I enjoy so much writing my plays -- they come so quick and exciting from the pen -- that you mustn't growl at me if you think them a waste of time."

Apparently, Garnett didn't think so, but almost everyone else did; only three of Lawrence's plays were produced in his lifetime and with very modest success. The other five gathered dust. (They mostly dealt with the Nottinghamshire mining community that Lawrence knew intimately, so perhaps it was coal dust they gathered.)

It wasn't until 1967, as a result of the Lady Chatterley's Lover court case mesmerizing England in the decade's middle, that Lawrence's dramaturgical skills were, well, mined. William Gaskill, who'd taken over the Royal Court Theatre from the pioneering George Devine, decided to peruse the newly published plays and subsequently gave Lawrence's forgotten dramas a second chance. As one of three offerings in a D.H. Lawrence season, Gaskill produced and Peter Gill directed the world premiere of The Daughter-in-Law, which was written no later than 1912 and is the play that accompanied the letter from which the above quote was excerpted.

Describing the work to Garnett, Lawrence explained, "It is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, just ordinary. It is quite objective, as far as that term goes, and though, no doubt, like most of my stuff, it wants weeding out a bit, yet I think the whole thing is there, laid out properly, planned and progressive. If you don't think so, I am disappointed." Although the play is now performed regularly in Great Britain, it's receiving a rare if not first American production thanks to the Mint Theater Company's tireless script hunter, Jonathan Bank. Were Lawrence around to view it, he would not be disappointed in the least by director Martin L. Platt's authoritative treatment of his long-overlooked opus. He might even realize that his description of it to Garnett was on the mark: The Daughter-in-Law wants weeding out a bit, yet the whole thing is there, laid out properly, planned and progressive.

Perhaps it was modesty in Lawrence, or pessimism, that held him from patting himself harder on the back. He might have congratulated himself heartily, because The Daughter-in-Law -- which could be retitled The Daughter-in-Law and the Mother-in-Law -- is a play about miners and their women that packs explosive power, perhaps the dramatic equivalent of whatever is required for drilling a new seam. Included in Lawrence's four-act piece (here done in two acts) there's a vindictive gesture that provokes an audience to the sort of collective gasp that tells the gaspers they're in on something special.

Luther Gascoyne (Gareth Saxe) has married Minnie (Angela Reed), despite the fact that her status as an ex-governess with 120 pounds squirreled away marks her as superior to him in the rigid British class system. (Yes, this is another British play about class; try to find one that isn't.) Six weeks into the unhappy Luther-Minnie alliance, Mrs. Purdy (Jodie Lynne McClintock) visits Luther's mother (Mikel Sarah Lambert) with the news that young Bertha Purdy is pregnant with Luther's child. She proposes with due embarrassment that if the Gascoynes give Bertha 40 pounds, Mrs. Purdy will keep mum about the dodgy situation. Mrs. Gascoyne, who has the wherewithal but not the inclination to pay up, directs Mrs. Purdy to Luther and Minnie. Luther's brother Joe (Peter Russo), still living with his mother, alerts Luther -- but Minnie nonetheless finds out.

Lawrence sets in motion a play that's like a mother-in-law joke turned inside out. In the larger context of a strike during which the typical miner's impotence is thrown into heavy relief, Luther is caught between mother, who's resentful of his having left her home for someone she considers uppity, and wife, whom he married because she asked and not because he truly loves her. "Tha had me a-cause tha couldna get nobody better," Luther charges Minnie. (N.B: Lawrence wrote his plays in Nottinghamshire dialect as he usually did his novels, Sons and Lovers having been composed about the same time as The Daughter-in-Law and also involving a strong mother-son bond. The actors in the current production deliver their lines accordingly. Although dialect coach Amy Stoller indicates in a program note that she's tried to find a balance between authenticity and audience comprehension, ticket buyers are warned that close listening is required. They would also be well advised to familiarize themselves before the play begins with the program's glossary of North England terms; for example, "clat-fart" means gossip.)

Mikel Sarah Lambert and Gareth Saxein The Daughter-in-Law(Photo © Richard Termine)
Mikel Sarah Lambert and Gareth Saxe
in The Daughter-in-Law
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Although Minnie doesn't protest Luther's accusation, her pursuit of him isn't quite as cut-and-dried as he thinks. She has strong feelings for him that are frustrated by his lack of belief in himself. "I'm too good for you," she taunts, to which he replies, "I know." And therein lies the psychologically complex core of Lawrence's work. The drama of The Daughter-in-Law centers around the not infrequent English quandary: Can two people from different classes can get beyond the societal strictures they've assimilated to find a deeper emotional connection? As Luther and Minnie repeatedly assail one another in their struggle to find the answer, they also serve as a metaphor for the larger class struggle. Lawrence implies that -- for better or worse, and despite shared longings and divisive suspicions -- the classes are inextricably bound. They can only survive by acknowledging their interdependency.

The bit of weeding to which Lawrence referred in his letter to Garnett might have to do with the character of Minnie. Precisely why she wants Luther and why she's prepared to take the drastic steps she does to win him over is unclear. Was he or wasn't he her only chance? And if she married him by default, how did she come to love him enough to fight him and his mother for his heart? There's also something awkward about the play's structure: Its initial expository scene between Mrs. Gascoyne and Joe unfolds in their coal-pit-like, windowless house (scenic design by Bill Clarke), whereas the remainder of the play is set in the home that Luther and Minnie share. This abode has a window through which lighting designer Jeff Nellis sends rays of Vermeer-type sun.

The Daughter-in-Law actors, garbed by Holly Poe Durbin, are uniformly strong. Gareth Saxe, who enters covered with grime like some subterranean figure (which he is, of course), has the difficult task of playing a man whose uncertainty about himself makes him seem dim-witted. Yet Lawrence has invested Luther with decency: He retains a remorseful affection for Bertha, and Saxe easily conveys that quality as well as Luther's slow-to-burn manner. Mikel Sarah Lambert as the seemingly tougher force vying for Luther finds humanity in the wily Mrs. Gascoyne; and Angel Reed as Minnie, who seems at first no match for her adversary, eventually manifests the requisite inner strength that's called for. Peter Russo as Joe and Jodie Lynne McClintock equal the others in locating the Nottinghamshire grit and humility within themselves.

Might it be said that Lawrence's plays languished because he was ahead of his time? No; he was decidedly of his time but unlucky. Happily, luck has now struck with the resonating ring of a miner's pick.