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The Daughter-in-Law

Sandra Shipley and Amy Blackman                            photos Maria Baaniova


The Daughter-in-Law

                                     By Marc Miller

The Mint Theater Company, known for decades as a distinguished producer of revivals of early 20th century plays that have escaped wide notice, is happily back, this time with a revival of a revival. D.H. Lawrence’s 1913 drama The Daughter-in-Law, a major hit for the Mint back in 2003, is getting another airing, at the Mint’s cozy home in the basement at City Center. It’s wonderful to have the company, an indispensable resource that gives us worthy works no other company would touch, back on the boards. With The Daughter-in-Law, though, there’s a hefty dose of “why this?”


It's missing some things. Like subtitles. Consider the first line of the script: “Well, I s’d ha thought thy belly ’ud a’browt thee whoam afore this.” Roughly, “Well, I should have thought your belly would have brought you home before this.” We’re in a North England coal mining community, you see, conveyed partly by Lindsay Jones’s sound effects of spades and shovels attacking the earth, which I at first thought were sounds of somebody taking out the garbage. The accents peddled are thicker than the porridges and puddings that Mrs. Gascoyne  is preparing, and for the first scene, between Mrs. Gascoyne and her son Joe (Charan Bowling), I could understand maybe 30% of the dialogue. The ear does adjust, and by the time we visit Minnie and her husband, Mrs. Gascoyne’s other son Luther (Tom Coiner), the ratio had shot up to 70%.


Tom Coiner and Charan Bowing


But really, someone might encourage director Martin Platt and company to dial back a little on the local dialect. The text is already heavy with regionalisms and thous and dosts and such, and Platt and company are doing us no favors by providing authentic dialects that are also indecipherable.


We’re able to divine this much: A neighbor, Mrs. Purdy (Polly McKie), visits, with the news that Luther, though married to Minnie, has impregnated her daughter. She demands 40 pounds compensation for this, a sizable sum in this community. Meantime, a strike is brewing, and Joe, having broken his arm, isn’t receiving any disability pay. Those are the dramatis personae, save for a cabman (Seth Andrew Bridges) who enters, utters two short lines, and disappears. And that’s pretty much the throughline, allowing for various permutations of domestic conflict, along with Lawrentian observations on female power, and the strictures that prevent it from being fully asserted.


These observations are interesting, some of them. There’s a thick forest of dialect to navigate through, helpfully explained in the program—a “clat-fart” is a gossip, to “morm” is to wander about, etc.—but if you can hack through it, you’ll find Lawrence making trenchant commentary on women and the sorry men they have to put up with. Mrs. Gascoyne, something of a smother-mother, doesn’t want her bachelor son to wed, observing, “Marriage is like a mousetrap, for either man or woman—you’ve soon come to the end of the cheese.” Minnie, having inherited a fair sum, is aware of the power her financial clout gives her in her marriage. She knows she’s not Luther’s only focus—“You only want your mother to rock you to sleep,” she sourly observes—and she knows he’s been straying.

It is, from all we can gather, a terrible marriage, and Luther, whom Coiner invests with a booming voice and a surly manner, seems variously abusive, unrepentant, alcoholic, and unthinking.


Tom Coiner and Amy Blackman


So it comes as a surprise when Lawrence, spoiler alert but not really, gives us a happy ending: Luther and Minnie, he implies, really love each other and will work out their differences, despite all evidence to the contrary, and there’s a lot of that. Was he merely bowing to theatrical conventions of the day, which generally insisted on sending audiences out smiling, unless you were Ibsen or Chekhov? Who knows, but I didn’t believe it. And I wondered about Joe, for whom Lawrence provides no ending at all. We know he’s involved in the strikers’ unrest, we don’t know whether he’ll be wounded or killed or come home in one piece. He’s one of the more levelheaded characters, though also argumentative and given to violent outbursts, and Bowling invests him with a fair amount of humanity. But Lawrence, having provided a tidy if hard-to-swallow resolution to one plotline, decides to leave the other flapping in the wind.


It’s that kind of a play. Characters who bicker and yell in one scene are just fine with each other in the next, having come to some understanding we haven’t witnessed. Mrs. Gascoyne is distinctly unfond of her daughter-in-law, finding her pretentious, and hating her for taking a son from her. And Minnie has Mrs. Gascoyne’s number, snarling, “You didn’t care what women your sons went with, so long as they didn’t love them."


But by the next scene, the two are mutually apologetic and simpatico. Minnie, meantime, has spent her entire inheritance, as nearly as I can tell, to balance the power structure between her and her husband. The motivations, in short, don’t always add up.


The set, by Bill Clarke, is confusing. At first we just see Mrs. Gascoyne’s modest kitchen, which then becomes Minnie’s kitchen, with a living room added on (there are some slow set changes), which then becomes Mrs. Gascoyne’s living room. Holly Poe Durbin’s costumes get the job done, and in a cast of actors who seem to be struggling to make sense of their characters, Shipley, long valued on New York and other stages, allows us to understand Mrs. Gascoyne. When we can understand what she’s saying, that is.


AMY BLACKMAN (as Minnie), SANDRA SHIPLEY (OM COINER (as Luther) in a scene


A lengthy program note tells us about Lawrence, his unfortunate and badly timed theatrical career, and the Freudian influence that manifests itself in some of his plays, this one very much included. It helps to illuminate the hardscrabble existence depicted, and we must salute the Mint for continuing to provide us with worthy theatrical works that otherwise might go forgotten. I can almost guarantee, though, its next production will be worthier than The Daughter-in-Law.


The Daughter-in-Law
Off-Broadway play
Playing at New York City Center Stage II,
131 W. 55th St.
Playing through March 20, 2022
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes