September 2, 2011

“Where else can you see plays like this in New York?” That enthusiastic audience endorsement, overheard at a performance of the Mint’s revival production of Rachel Crothers’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated 1918 play, “A Little Journey,” should be music to the ears of Mint a.d. Jonathan Bank, who seems to have some precious-metal detector for the kind of forgotten theater gems that deserve to be dusted off and given a chance to shine again.

Picking them is one thing. Giving them a proper production is something else. And while the Mint doesn’t always hit its production mark with its vintage revivals, the 16-year-old company does itself proud here with helmer Jackson Gay’s smartly-cast, inventively staged, and altogether spiffy representation of Crothers’ proto-feminist play about the limitations on women living in a male society.

The most irresistible element of the play is its setting — the first-class sleeper on a cross-country railroad train headed west from New York City. Working with an efficiently functional revolve (no squeaking! no shaking!), set designer Roger Hanna recreates a handsome facsimile of a plush Pullman car, its several compartments occupied by characters who present us with a neat cross-section of pre-World War I America. (All of them, men and women alike, have been dressed with exceptionally good taste and meticulous period specificity by costumer Martha Hally.)

Crothers certainly knows her fellow Americans. But she has also carefully studied the charming quirks and unlovely foibles that make them ripe for social satire.

There’s the demure young lady (Chet Siegel) traveling with her provincial grandmother (a scene-stealing perf from veteran Rosemary Prinz), but with a keen eye out for the two handsome college boys (Ben Hollandsworth and Ben Roberts) with incredibly nice manners. There’s the obnoxious financier (Douglas Rees) who expects his creature comforts to be instantly attended to by the hard-working porter (Anthony L. Gaskins), and the bossy busybody Mrs. Welch, who is a living New Yorker cartoon of a privileged Gotham lady, in Laurie Birmingham’s delicious performance.

Slipping down the social scale, there is also a vulgar but personable traveling salesman (pure professionalism from Craig Wroe) and, most interestingly, an unmarried mother (sensitively played by Jennifer Blood) who is taking her baby to the man she trusts will make her his wife.

And then there is Julie Rutherford (a luminous perf from Samantha Soule), the young woman whose “little journey” of self-discovery is the raison d’etre for this play.

Crothers produced and directed her own plays to be certain that their proto-feminist themes — from the financial ruin of divorce to the social alienation of being the other woman — wasn’t lost in male translation. Julie is the playwright’s model for her topical theme of the dehumanizing effect of women’s financial dependence on men.

Cast off by her fiancé when her aunt’s fortune is lost, and anticipating a dreary life as her brother’s ward, Julie is giving serious thought to suicide. But her encounter with a charismatic leader in the Social Reform Movement (played by the less-than-magnetic McCaleb Burnett) — along with a dramatic plot turn in the third act — shows Julie and everyone else who survives this catastrophic event that women, as well as men, possess self-sustaining inner strengths that make them capable of turning their lives around. And while this results in a mass spiritual conversion that makes for a quasi-religious ending, that uplifting message is, indeed, what made Crothers one of the most popular dramatists of her day.