“Hindle Wakes” at Mint Theatre. (Photo: Todd Cerveris)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes, currently playing at the Mint Theatre through February 17, is a neglected, once widely popular, Ibsenian “play of ideas,” so controversial in its day Oxford University tried to prevent its students from seeing it. It pictures an unmarried young couple whose sinful weekend together at a seaside resort in Lancashire, England, is found out by their parents. The event is considered so potentially scandalous that the parents insist, against their children’s wishes, that they marry.
The situation sounds like something we might expect to encounter today only in the most fundamentalist enclaves but in Hindle Wakes it occurs among reasonably secular, if churchgoing, folks mainly concerned with the affair’s social rather than religious implications.
Dated as this 1912 play may seem at first sight, its treatment of the double standard in male-female relationships remains surprisingly timely and is handled with considerable aplomb. In its day, when it premiered at Annie Horniman’s Gaiety Theatre, Manchester (followed by productions in London and New York), it was considered an example of the Manchester School of “folk plays” about North Country life.
Hindle is the fictional Lancashire town where the action takes place. “Wakes” refers to holiday weeks that people often spent at seaside resorts; it would be nice to think Houghton was also implying the effect on the characters of what transpires.
It was during the Blackpool Wakes that the young couple shacked up for their weekend, with no expectations for continuing the affair. Had it not been for the death of Fanny’s girlfriend—the play’s weakest playwriting contrivance—the tryst would have remained secret.
Typically, given their class differences, the lovers would never have had the opportunity to make their relationship permanent. Alan (Jeremy Beck), is the feckless son of the imperious Nathaniel Jeffcote (Jonathan Hogan), the town’s wealthy mill owner, and his wife (Jill Tanner). Fanny (Rebecca Noelle Brinkley), however, is the millworker daughter of Nathaniel’s longtime friend and employee, Christopher Hawthorn (Ken Marks), and his wife (Sandra Shipley).
The parents, believing that the only option is marriage, are forced to demand it, regardless of whether Alan and Fanny are in love, even if, as is suspected on the Jeffcote side, Fanny’s nothing but a gold digger. Nathaniel, for his part, threatens to disown Alan if he doesn’t do as he says. Alan, though, is engaged to and in love with Beatrice (Emma Geer), daughter of Sir Timothy Farrar (Brian Reddy), another wealthy, upper-class local.
Each character gets to weigh in colorfully regarding the dilemma (sometimes expressing themselves with “thees” and “thous” and various words in “Lanky” dialect). Their differing, well-written perspectives make up the bulk of the writing. We have to wait a while, though, to hear what Fanny, whose opinion no one has sought, speaks up and reveals herself as an exemplar of the freethinking modern woman when, to everyone’s surprise, she vehemently declares that—despite the status and money it will bring—marrying Alan is the last thing she’s inclined to do.
Taken aback, Alan asks: “Then you didn’t ever really love me?” Fanny: “Love you? Good heavens, of course not. Why on earth should I love you? You were just someone to have fun with.” Alan: “But do you mean to say that you didn’t care any more for me than a fellow cares for any girl he happens to pick up?” Fanny: “Yes. Are you shocked?” When the frustrated old Jeffcote learns of Fanny’s position, all he can offer is “There’s no fathoming a woman.”
Charles Morgan’s attractive set, a clever combination of pillars, posts, and Victorian gingerbread ceiling arches backed by black curtains serves for both families’ homes (although rather too fancy for the Hawthorns). Christian DeAngelis lights the actors well except when he goes a bit too far in dimming things to suggest the oncoming dusk. Sam Fleming’s period costumes score highly but Jonathan Hogan’s attire could use better tailoring.
The ensemble is well-honed, although the accents vary in quality. Of particular notice are Tanner and Shipley as the contrasting mothers, the former aloof and well controlled, the latter tending to volatility. Brinkley and Geer are lovely incarnations of the rival lovers, and Beck gives the finest of his various local performances over the past few years. Hogan, Marks, and Reddy excel at the fathers, Reddy’s rumbustious Sir Timothy making the boldest impression.
Given a lively, colorful, enthusiastic revival by director Gus Kaikkonen for the Mint Theatre, famous for its resuscitation of forgotten plays, Hindle Wakes is an unexpectedly bright addition to the current season.
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 17
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).