REVIEW: The Mint Theater Company resurrects Lillian Hellman’s “Days to Come”
The clever motto of the Mint Theater Company is “lost plays found here”. That’s fitting, since this Off-Broadway company, founded in 1992, exclusively specializes in resurrecting lost or forgotten plays from the early 20th century.
Their 55th New York production is “Days to Come”, playwright Lillian Hellman’s second play, which ran a whopping seven performances at the now-demolished Vanderbilt Theatre on Broadway in 1936, and appears to have received only one other major revival in the years since—a WPA production in 1978.
Fresh off the success of her first play, “The Children’s Hour” (1934)—which featured a provocative plot involving destructive rumors of lesbianism at an all-girls boarding school—Hellman, a noted left-wing political activist, sought to stir the pot again with her intimate look at the domestic impact of labor strife in the fictional small town of Callom, Ohio.
The play opens as we are weeks into a labor strike in the autumn of 1936, a precarious moment of rising fortunes from the depths of the Great Depression before the precipitous plummet of 1937. From a well-to-do upbringing herself, Hellman set “Days to Come” in the living room of the Rodmans, owners of the local brush factory (situs of the strike) and the wealthiest family in town—a perspective from the playwright that was no doubt unexpected at the time.
Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull) runs the company founded by his late-father, and lives in the family home with his distant wife, Julie (Janie Brookshire), and unmarried sister, Cora (Mary Bacon). Alongside his lawyer, Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy), the highly moral and mild-mannered Andrew navigates the arrival of “52 or 53” strikebreakers he’s reluctantly hired to keep production going while masking his own debt-ridden finances.
Outside the walls of the Rodman estate, labor organizer Leo Whalen (Roderick Hill) attempts to keep the striking workers non-violent, even as the goons Rodman hires begin to make trouble. With tension at a fever-pitch, things fall apart fast when one of the visitors is killed, forcing long-simmering personal and social grievances to come to the surface.
Freely flowing across categories and genres, watching this finely-acted production under the direction of J.R. Sullivan it is not hard to see why audiences may have been confused by “Days to Come” in 1936. The play, which vacillates between melodramatic, realistic, and hard-boiled qualities, ambitiously—and quite successfully—captures both the local and global scene of its conflict, tying the interpersonal struggles of boss and worker with family, community, and country.
The genius of the Mint Theater Company’s mission is the proof it provides for the enduring power of the dramatist’s insight. The setting and predicament of “Days to Come” may feel foreign to contemporary urban audiences, but the characters are definitely not. And while the small-town vision of worker and boss as friends seems more and more remote with each passing year, the labor dynamics on display throughout the play—from the opening lines as maids in the Rodman home gossip, to the climax—are familiar, and deeply relevant.
Plays often exist in closed-circuit; Hellman dared to expand the world of the play in this work. “Days to Come” does in fact portend days to come while wrestling with the moral ambiguities its characters face, and connecting their private actions to public consequences, lending the play a grander sweep than its well-appointed, art deco drawing room setting by Harry Feiner might suggest.
Hellman later offered that the labor strife central to the plot was a device to explore the behavior of her characters; device or not, it is an essential, exciting, and refreshing conflict to see on stage and ruminate upon afterward. An obscure 1936 play ripped from the headlines may be easy to cast as a period piece, and in many ways is properly so, but what might be most surprising are the ways in which it is not.
Bottom Line: The Mint Theater Company resurrects Lillian Hellman’s long-forgotten 1936 play “Days to Come”, which ambitiously—and quite successfully—dramatizes long-simmering personal and social grievances exploding against a backdrop of labor strife in a small Ohio town. Exciting and refreshing, a play easily cast as a period piece is most surprising for how it is not.
“Days to Come”
Mint Theater Company
The Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Opening Night: August 26, 2018
Final Performance: October 6, 2018