September 27, 2006

The Mint Theater’s production of “John Ferguson” is one of those lovely little surprises that pop up occasionally in the wildly uneven world of Off Off Broadway. In a cramped third-floor theater in a tiny Times Square office building, this is a thoroughly engrossing, fully realized drama brought to life by an ensemble of actors who never miss a beat.

They play a small-town Irish farm family threatened with eviction and the local characters who get involved. John Ferguson (Robertson Carricart), a man who believes that God has a reason for everything that happens, reads his Bible by firelight. His daughter, Hannah (Marion Wood), happily basks in the love of her family until she realizes that the only way to save its farm is to marry James Caesar (Mark Saturno), a nice but creepy guy who makes her cringe.

When she says yes to Jimmy (“I’ll have you”), her mother, Sarah (Joyce Cohen), is thrilled. Her father struggles with himself, trying to believe that the marriage is really what Hannah wants.

It has come to this because the Fergusons were expecting a check from John’s brother in the United States. When the mailman confirms that no letter has come, all seems lost. Henry Witherow (Greg Thornton), who holds the mortgage, pays a visit, just to establish his despicability.

Grandly directed by Martin Platt, the cast does not have a weak link, but Ms. Wood deserves particular praise. There are a hundred ways for her to go wrong in her reaction to, and transformation by, an unspeakable violation, but she never does.

Justin Schultz, as Andrew, Hannah’s gentle but seething brother, spends a good deal of Act II half-cowering against a wall with the intensity of a smarter Boo Radley.

The village semi-idiot, John McGrath (John Keating), known as Clutie, functions as both comic relief and Greek chorus (and a reminder that being homeless is a lot easier when neighbors share their food and offer hay lofts for sleeping).

Critics adored “John Ferguson,” which was written by St. John Ervine, when it opened in New York in 1919. Even now, when American audiences sometimes deal with stage tragedy by looking for laughs, it is compelling.