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THEATER REVIEW Rutherford and Son
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-11-16

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Playwright: Githa Sowerby

At: Timeline Theatre Company at Baird Hall, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Tickets: TimelineTheatre.com and 773-281-8463; $42. Runs through: Jan. 12

Theater historians and classroom curricula have long credited Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw the chief proponents of realism in Western drama for their exploration of domestic injustices rarely examined by the privileged audiences of the period.

In 1912, however—a mere two years before the cataclysmic devastation of World War I would forever change the social order of the European population—playwright Githa ( pronounced "Gee-tha" ) Sowerby warned her native England of the price exacted by the unfettered rise of industry and the utilitarian principles engendered thereby.

For two generations, the Northeast Midlands firm of Rutherford and Son have manufactured "plain and lasting" pressed glass in its furnaces and kilns. The first Rutherford "son" referenced in the company's name has devoted his life to the enterprise bequeathed him, and that he hopes to pass on to his offspring someday. In his obsession with bettering the fortunes of his successors, ironically, he has adopted a relentlessly pragmatic cosmology crippling his children's spiritual growth. Prohibited from fraternizing with the village dwellers, shunned by the gentry as upstarts born of "commerce" the three now-grown siblings have emerged from an upbringing of forced idleness under the tyranny of their unforgiving sire into a lonely adulthood racked by frustration barely concealed beneath deceptive torpor.

Rebellion is inevitable. Big sister Janet and little brother Richard may keep their plans secret, but middle-child John, the designated heir to the Rutherford empire, not only has audaciously married an emancipated job-holding London woman, but has also invented a new budget-cutting method of glassmaking, which he offers his father—in exchange for money to provide his own wife and son a future of their own choosing. As the intrepid patriarch schemes to seize the property he considers rightfully due the family business, his exiled kin gradually make their escape, leaving their inhumane progenitor to bargain with the one Rutherford as flinty and calculating as himself.

Playgoers anticipating a cheerful Shavian romp will realize their mistake at the first sight of the gloomy Gothic Revival furnishings of the Rutherford mansion and whaleboned gowns worn by its female occupants. Under Timeline director Mechelle Moe, though, the minor-scale tone of this "lost" play never descends into melodramatic parody, but instead turns its very darkness to advantage, forging transcendent moments of defiance pointing the way to hope. The muscular cast displays actorly stamina well meeting the demands of an exposition-heavy play featuring the difficult "Geordie" dialect—the latter courtesy of associate director Eva Brenemen—while Timeline's always astute dramaturgs provide sufficient playbill annotations to acquaint us with a universe ( for those of biographical bent ) replicating that of the author. The Edwardian age wasn't all Downton Abbey and Mary Poppins, you know.


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