Days to Come Pits a Nascent Labor Union Against Strike-Breaking Thugs
Mint Theater Company revives Lillian Hellman's rarely produced 1936 drama.
Depressingly, we still worry about workers not being paid enough, the privatization of essential state functions like law enforcement, and the use of debt in power politics. These were all things that concerned Lillian Hellman when she wrote her 1936 drama Days to Come, which followed the runaway success of her Broadway debut, The Children's Hour. Sophomore Broadway outings are notoriously tricky, but rather than taking the safe road, Hellman admirably chose to tackle these huge subjects — even though they were too big to pin down in two hours. That's clear in the current revival of Days to Come (the first in 40 years) from Mint Theater Company. Well-staged and smartly acted, it still leaves us underwhelmed by a script that bites off more than it can chew.
It takes place in a small Ohio town where everything revolves around the Rodman brush factory, currently administered by the founder's grandson, Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull). A strike over slashed wages has halted production. At the urging of his lawyer, Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy), Rodman has brought in Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily) and his strike-breaking associates (the appropriately goon-like Geoffrey Allen Murphy and Evan Zes). Meanwhile, workers' spokesman and longtime friend of the Rodman family Thomas Firth (Chris Henry Coffey) has union organizer Leo Whalen (Roderick Hill) on his side. Whalen warns Rodman that he's asking for trouble by bringing Wilkie into this peaceful little town, but Rodman insists that he has little choice. Stuck in a passionless marriage, Rodman's wife, Julie (Janie Brookshire), looks to explore her options.
Hellman thrillingly eschews simplistic agitprop, fully humanizing her characters. This isn't just the story of laboring Davids versus a capitalist Goliath, but of how they must ultimately coexist. It also exposes the opportunists who seek to exacerbate tensions between these groups for their own profit. Most impressively, Hellman shows how public and private actions drive each other, often in an inescapable cycle. It's a lot to pack into two hours.
But it's Hellman's expansive scope that is also the play's undoing: Not only does it dilute focus, but the linguistic labor and dramatic contrivance required to set up all of Hellman's dominoes ensures a long and often painfully dull process before they can be knocked down. If she had figured out a way to convey her important ideas with the brevity and biting wit of her later success, The Little Foxes, Days to Come would be an extraordinary play.
This middling dramatization of an extraordinary concept is given a top-notch production here by director J.R. Sullivan. Harry Feiner's elegantly designed foldout set is both attractive and functional, as are Andrea Varga's authentic period costumes. Featuring a glass upstage wall that looks out on the Rodman garden, Feiner's set is something of a heavy-handed metaphor: These people literally live in a glass house. It seems to offer warmth and protection from the rain outside (Jane Shaw's delicately calibrated sound design, working in tandem with the tastefully muted sconces in Christian DeAngelis's lighting, tells that story). But we know that it could all come crashing down with little more than a brick.
Having inherited a job he is wholly unsuited to execute, no matter his good intentions, Bull's Rodman radiates such existential anxiety. His permanent look of dread contrasts highly with the comic callowness of his sister Cora, an eccentric layabout. Mary Bacon brings an epic stank face to the role that feels particularly suited to this Jazz Age trust-funder.
Brookshire is serviceably doe-eyed as Julie (the only character that feels underdeveloped), while Hill impressively manages to make his coldly messianic character feel sympathetic, even when he's up on his soap box. As Wilkie, Dan Daily exhibits the kind of feigned confidence and effortless ability to lie that one might expect to see in a candidate for attorney general in the Trump administration.
Unfortunately, Days to Come is neither as funny or tragic as it has the potential to be. That's too bad because, as the title suggests, Hellman believed that the themes she was addressing would become even more relevant in the following century — and she was right.