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Rutherford & Son

The Mint Theatre offers a worthy revival of Githa Sowerby's play about a family ruled by a domineering patriarch.

Robert Hogan and James Patrick Nelson
in Rutherford & Son
(© Richard Termine)
It's a fact of rewarding theater that "worm-turning" scenes -- the ones where seemingly weak characters finally speak out against their unrelenting oppressors -- are some of the most satisfying for audiences to watch. Fortunately, Githa Sowerby's 1912 play Rutherford & Son, now being revived at the Mint Theatre under Richard Corley's pithy direction, boasts two of the kind of meat-and-potatoes sequences that give drama a captivating name.

Saying more about the circumstances in which the verbal explosions occur could spoil the fun, but it's certainly fair to note that the principal tyrant in Sowerby's work is self-made glassworks mogul John Rutherford (Robert Hogan). Indeed, the man so thoroughly disallows criticism in his house that those over whom he regularly tramples are as bent as the sea-wind-tormented bare tree outside the window on Vicki R. Davis' set.

Those repeatedly tongue-lashed include his son, also named John Rutherford (Eli James), who returns home after a long absence to the chilly homestead, along with the outlines of an invention he maintains will revolutionize glassmaking and for which he demands to be paid by his disapproving father. He also brings (unseen) son Tony and wife, Mary (Allison McLemore), who isn't well-born enough to suit her father-in-law's expectations and earns only his disregard.

Among the browbeaten others are Rutherford's unwed 36-year-old daughter Janet (Sara Surrey), whose duties run to fetching the master's slippers; his weak preacher son Richard (James Patrick Nelson), a community laughing-stock; his caustic sister Aunt Ann (Sandra Shipley), who swears by her brother's dictates; and his obliging, trusted aide Martin (David Van Pelt), who is surreptitiously courting Janet.

Also on hand is Mrs. Henderson (Dale Soules), the interloping mother of a thieving factory worker whom patriarch Rutherford has already given a second chance and refuses to extend a third chance.

In the play, Sowerby sets out to demonstrate how domineering figures inevitably destroy everything they've built up and are striving to preserve, and by the time she reaches her conclusion, she's shown how the elder Rutherford has alienated his three children, all the while spouting what he considers understandable objections to his children's behavior.

While the work almost borders on melodrama, Sowerby's most notable contribution may be what she, as a woman, brought to dramatic literature. Whereas sons John and Richard, daughter Janet, daughter-in-law Mary, and right-hand man Martin are all seemingly undone by Rutherford, Sowerby makes a point of handing the women the means and expressions of retaliation. And they do exercise and maximize the opportunities seized!

Of course, where playwriting is concerned, both strong and weak characters can provide enticing scenery-chewable roles for actors -- and Sowerby lets no one down on this score. Hogan, Surrey and McLemore get to do the most memorable dialog crunching, while James, Shipley, Van Pelt, Nelson, and Soules never let the teamwork flag.

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