September 23, 2006

John Ferguson, last seen on Broadway 70-odd years ago, is perhaps the most potent and compelling new production of the current theatre season. The Mint Theater does us a tremendous service in letting us discover this rich and rewarding play, masterfully staged in a production that may be the very best one yet in the company’s distinguished history. I cannot recommend this excellent work of theatre too highly.

Written in 1915 by the Irish playwright St. John Ervine, John Ferguson tells the story of a pious middle-aged man, debilitated by an unspecified disease before his time, and his poor, hard-working family. It’s the 1880s, in rural Ulster, Northern Ireland; John, his wife Sarah, and their children Hannah and Andrew, are awaiting a letter from America that will save them from financial ruin. For the Ferguson farm is mortgaged to the hilt, and they’ve no money to pay their creditor Henry Witherow—ever since John’s illness, Andrew has had to work the farm, and Andrew, who was to be a minister, just isn’t suited to the farmer’s life. Witherow is breathing down John’s neck, and now the only hope is a remittance from Ferguson’s brother (also named Andrew), who lives in America.

Alas, when Sam Mawhinney makes his mail rounds this day, there’s nothing in his bag for the Fergusons. Witherow arrives, ready to foreclose. Visiting the family at the same time is young James Caesar, a neighbor whose family was ruined by Witherow. Jimmy Caesar has worked hard to get himself out from under the landlord’s thumb, and is now a prosperous shopkeeper. He offers to pay off the mortgage for the Fergusons—if Hannah will only marry him. Hannah cannot abide the man, though; John tells her that he’d rather be turned out of his home than have her do anything against her will, but she decides to be wed to Jimmy and save the family farm.

Later she changes her mind, and matters become troubled and then tragic.

John Ferguson’s plot is the stuff of old-fashioned melodrama, no doubt about it (and indeed Greg Thornton, who plays the malevolent Witherow, looks and acts every bit the show-boating villain: if he had a handlebar mustache, you just know he’d be twirling it sinisterly).

But this is no hoary old chestnut. John Feguson is gripping, riveting theatre because its characters weigh their actions carefully throughout. They struggle with decisions, large and small, that will affect their lives in important ways; and Ervine, shrewdly and quite modernly, lets us in on their thought processes: these folks behave like people, not two-dimensional caricatures or constructs. And their explorations of the big and trivial issues underlying the choices they must make give this play enormous heft and resonance.

John lives by the Bible, pure and simple; for him, everything that happens is part of some great Godly plan that we are not privy to. He finds comfort and solace in the promise that the good will be rewarded and that (quoting one of the Psalms of David), “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

John’s wife Sarah, by contrast, is a pragmatist. She’s not concerned with morality; she can’t afford it. What matters to her is a roof over her head and food to put on the table and the safety and security of her family. Ervine shows us that a deep bond exists between these two, but they don’t always understand each other:

SARAH FERGUSON: If any one was to hurt me, I’d do my best to hurt them back, and hurt them harder nor they hurt me. That would learn them! JOHN FERGUSON: Would it? Men’s been hitting back since the beginning of the world, but hitting back has learned no one anything but hatred and bitterness.

Hannah and Andrew have assimilated the philosophies of both parents and are trying to find their own path in a world that turns increasingly difficult as the play runs its course. Outside the family, Ervine also offers us the perspectives of Jimmy Caesar, a fundamentally cowardly man with a strong streak of self-preservation, and “Clutie” John McGrath, a “half-wit” wandering beggar who may be the clearest-eyed of all the characters in the play.

In the end, Ervine fills the stage with sheer, untarnished humanity. If John Ferguson begins with a strong, possibly over-the-top storyline that grabs us immediately, it holds us with its rich array of humor, pathos, sweetness, shrewdness, and honesty. The events ultimately matter less than the journey that each character makes through a complicated ethical and moral quagmire. This is a play about consequences. What’s more essentially human than that?

(And to add a wondrously 20th century twist to the thing—is there not a prescient hint of the existential in the play’s astonishing final act?)

Martin Platt has directed John Ferguson with tremendous intelligence, trust, and nuance. The chemistry among all the actors is palpable, and their reactions to and relationships with one another are remarkably measured and truthful; when John watches Jimmy Caesar run off at the mouth, or when young Andrew takes in the details of the latest family crisis, their emotions and calculations register clearly on their faces. The designers (Bill Clarke on sets, Jeff Nellis on lights, Mattie Ullrich on costumes, Lindsay Jones on sound) have collaborated beautifully to create a cohesive and ambient environment: I was particularly impressed with the way that the dank gloom of the Ferguson house is subtly but effectively conveyed by Nellis.

The performances are exquisite. Robertson Carricart (John), Joyce Cohen (Sarah), Justin Schultz (Andrew), and Marion Woods (Hannah) inhabit the roles of the Ferguson family splendidly. John Keating is endearing and oddly wise as the savant-like Clutie; I loved the way he was able to blend into the woodwork while warming himself by the fire as the Fergusons went about their business, ignoring him. The evening’s most impressive work, though, comes from Mark Saturno, who is a revelation as Jimmy Caesar—he captures all the contradictions and complications of this hollow, petty man.

We owe a profound debt of gratitude to the Mint for bringing us John Ferguson, a play whose timelessness and significance completely belie its obscurity. For seventy years, theatre-goers have missed this play; now that it’s on the boards again, I urge you not to!