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The Glass Cage

The Mint Theatre offers a fresh and intelligent revival of J.B. Priestley's rarely seen family drama. logo
Jeanine Serralles and Saxon Palmer in The Glass Cage
(© Richard Termine)
When you remember that one definition of "bane" is "deadly poison" and another is "the cause of distress, death or ruin," you know why J. B. Priestley chose the name McBane for the contentious family at the center of his nearly-forgotten drama The Glass Cage, now being revived by the Mint Theatre. He had in his sights the deep pain troubled and venal relatives can cause one another. And in shaking the cobwebs from this neglected but effective 1957 play, originally written for Canada's Crest Theatre, the company comes through with another of their fresh and intelligent airings.

The openly vengeful McBanes throwing their scruffy weight around in the two-act work are Douglas (Aaron Krohn), Angus (Saxon Palmer), and Jean (Jeanine Serralles), who walk defiantly through the front door of the Malcolm McBane (Jack Wetherall) and Mildred McBane (Robin Moseley) household, where patriarch David (Gerry Bamman) and daughter Elspie (Sandra Struthers-Clerc) also reside. The three guests are there to claim their due as the children of McBane's black-sheep brother Charlie, and will not sign papers that will net them less than the $200,000 share of the family business Charlie was done out of and they insist they're owed.

Not at all careful to conceal their dark purpose, the poor-relation McBanes set about disrupting the superficially serene middle-class surroundings. Their profligate shenanigans not only include agitating weak-hearted Mildred but unbending innocent Elspie and her ever-present beau, John Harvey (Chad Hoeppner), a cousin on Mildred's side. In green-apple-quick-time, bartender Angus is drinking himself into abusive states, sometime dance-hall employee Jean is lifting her skirts to show off her legs, and Douglas is single-mindedly pursuing the long-plotted scheme to avenge Charlie and their part-Indian mother's impoverishment.

The beauty of Priestley's writing -- and he eschews the gimmicks that underpin other of his plays such as An Inspector Calls and Time and the Conways -- is that he diligently stays away from vivifying the obvious. He doesn't merely set three calculating cats among a nest of thoroughly blameless canaries. Instead, he deals out nuances so that the at-home adult McBanes are not the purely religion-adhering souls they loudly present themselves to be. Neither are the three trouble-making guests as inflexibly destructive as they initially appear on Roger Hanna's set, for which all walls have been stripped away and only the infrastructure left to serve as metaphor for the dramatic stripping away. Priestley's point -- which he makes with particular excessiveness in a scene where Elspie and John unrealistically kick up their heels on an unrealistically slick period floor -- is that for redemption to be attained, those hoping to be redeemed must face up to their interpersonal sinning. What's "sacred," Jean exclaims, are "people, life."

These people are brought to bracing life by director Lou Jacob and a thoroughly adept cast. Krohn, Palmer, and Serralles initially assume hardened expressions but slowly let the cracks show, and Bamman's equally unforgiving manner softens properly. Chet Carlin as a perceptive family doctor and Fiana Toibin as the family retainer complement what Wetherall, Moseley, Struthers-Clerc, and Hoeppner bring to the insightful text.

In Priestley's introduction to the published manuscript, he states The Glass Cage was written for the Crest Theatre's founders -- brothers Murray and Donald Davis and sister Barbara Chilcott -- because he knew no other opus dominated by such imposing siblings. He was overlooking, of course, Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes, which are also presided over by two brothers and a sister. But intentionally or not, he was doing Hellman better to a noticeable extent by making the corrupt and powerful more humane, and the deceptively innocent more realistic. Nice work.

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