The Mint Theater Company continues to burnish its reputation as a place to find fascinating theatrical artifacts with the New York premiere of D.H. Lawrence’s early play The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd. The admittedly problematic work, which is set in a mining town and is written with a deep sense of empathy for its characters and a keen understanding of the social and class limitations under which his characters chafed, is something more than just a curiosity; it is an early glimpse at an artist of great stature in the process of finding his voice.
While the play suffers from being a touch heavy-handed, it’s also rather startling in its economy of storytelling. With a few deft lines, Lawrence establishes an abiding affection between a single workingman named Blackmore (Nick Cordileone) and Mrs. Holroyd (Julia Coffey), a married woman with children. At the same time, even before we meet him, we learn that Mr. Holroyd (Eric Martin Brown) is treating his wife badly and is not to be trusted, which we later see in his action when he comes home drunk with a couple of unsavory women.
Eventually, Blackmore asks Mrs. Holroyd to escape her desperate life. But that opportunity is balanced against both the exterior world in which these characters live and the interior world of their emotional needs. It’s particularly striking that Mrs. Holroyd, as unhappy and trapped as she is, must believe that Blackmore loves her before she will risk leaving a man she already knows she detests.
Where the play gets into trouble is in its second act — dominated by a visit from Mr. Holroyd’s mother (the heartbreaking Randy Danson) — that is so relentlessly grim that it’s going to put off a number of theatergoers. Most unsatisfying is the lack of resolution in the relationship of Blackmore and Mrs. Holroyd. It’s almost as if the play needed a third act that the young D.H. Lawrence had not yet learned how to write.
Under the sterling direction of Stuart Howard, the cast is excellent. Coffey’s brittle and bright performance as a woman cornered by her circumstances is simply wonderful. Cordileone brings an earnest diffidence and charm to his ardent but unsure suitor, while Brown infuses a one-note bad guy with a surprising amount of pathos. The set by Marion Williams and the costumes by Martha Hally are as meticulously wrought as the acting, and they are aided and abetted by richly atmospheric lighting by Jeff Nellis and further enhanced by Jane Shaw’s evocative sound design.