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John Ferguson

Strong supporting performances help lift the Mint Theater's revival of St. John Ervine's 1915 intriguing but sometimes tedious play. logo
Robertson Carricart, Joyce Cohen, Mark Saturno,
and Marion Wood in John Ferguson
(© Richard Termine)
A tour-de-force performance by Mark Saturno in St. John Ervine's John Ferguson helps to make the Mint Theater Company's revival of this 1915 work a worthy and memorable experience. So do a number of the supporting players. Unfortunately, Robinson Carricart in the show's title role doesn't bring more to the part.

Set in Ireland in the 1880s, the play revolves around John, who believes that his faith in God is unwavering even as he experiences misfortune after misfortune. His bad health forces him to stop working on the farm, which requires him to pull his son Andrew (Justin Schultz) out of seminary to work it. His enterprising neighbor Henry Witherow (Greg Thornton) calls in the farm's mortgage, which the Fergusons are unable to pay. Help arrives in the form of another neighbor, Jimmy Caesar (Saturno), who offers to pay off the mortgage in exchange for the hand of John's daughter Hannah (Marion Woods) in marriage. Hannah at first agrees to the match, but soon changes her mind -- much to the consternation of her mother Sarah (Joyce Cohen). Henry then does something (which can't be revealed in a review) that brings everything to a boil and leads to moral dilemmas and consequences for all involved.

The play's first act contains a large amount of exposition, which is quite tedious to sit through. However, once the action begins in earnest, the production really takes off, thanks to much of the cast. Saturno is absolutely terrific as he endows Jimmy with a vibrant energy that works amazingly well with the character's cowardly nature. A second act scene, in which Jimmy bemoans his inability to actually commit the sins he longs to, becomes a dynamic showcase for the actor's talents. His manic desperation is fully fleshed out and balanced by an uncanny comic timing that makes even the more absurd moments of the scene both believable and wickedly funny.

Schultz is striking in a completely different manner, as the actor stays mostly silent but ever watchful. Woods makes for a beautiful and vivacious Hannah, and it's not hard to see why the men in the town take a fancy to her. However, she's also skilled at silent reactions and the looks she gives other characters at certain moments in the play are priceless. John Keating is often amusing as a simple-minded beggar named Clutie, who plays a crucial role in helping Andrew make a life-altering decision.

Unfortunately, Carricart not only had a few troubles with his lines at the performance I attended, but played his character's intentions and feelings too much on the surface. This became particularly problematic in the play's climactic scene when John finally reaches his breaking point in relation to his faith and the troubles that surround him. His hypocritical advice to his son -- which goes against all that he's said previously in the play -- comes across as merely funny instead of also heartbreakingly devastating.

Even so, the production packs a punch. Martin Platt's direction is usually spot on, although there are a few scenes that drag. Bill Clarke's set effectively conveys the Ferguson's spare living conditions. The other designers -- Jeff Nellis (lights), Mattie Ullrich (costumes), and Lindsay Jones (sound) -- all make positive contributions to the overall aesthetic. Most importantly, the play itself stands the test of the time (although a little trimming here and there probably wouldn't hurt). Its exploration of faith amidst adversity remains compelling, and the character of John Ferguson is filled with potential for the right actor.

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