October 1, 2006

Broadway history books are replete with plays that shook things up momentarily, only to disappear into the dust. In the hands of Mint Theater Company, which has specialized since 1996 in rehabilitating such old and forgotten work, St. John Ervine’s 91-year-old “John Ferguson” remains insightful and engrossing.

This is Irish drama with a difference, both to World War I audiences (who at the time expected plays from the Emerald Isle to be filled with charm, whimsy and whiskey) and present-day playgoers (no blood, and not even one wee kitten).

The title character (Robertson Carricart) is ailing and hours away from losing the farm — literally — to a sneering landlord. The cowardly suitor (Mark Saturno) of Ferguson’s daughter Hannah (Marion Woods) offers to pay the mortgage in exchange for — well, we needn’t spoil it. When Hannah is assaulted by the villain(offstage), murder is in the air.

While these machinations are not exactly fresh, the characterizations are almost startlingly well expressed. The dour Presbyterian patriarch lives by the word of the Lord — the play opens and closes with him reading passages from the bible — until the moment when Ferguson’s own son is threatened. His wife (Joyce Cohen) is generally circumspect — even when her daughter is thrown down in the lane — but leaps out viciously when the life of her son (Justin Schultz) is in jeopardy. The boy is a study in contrasts; a divinity student forced to tend the failing homestead, he goes against his instincts to do what he must. Ervine not only draws his characters well, he demonstrates their inner contradictions and illustrates their struggles. He’s writing of a different world — the action is set in the 1880s — but nothing here is olden or archaic.

Director Martin Platt gets full value from his principals; everybody up there is believable, clearly committed to what he or she is doing. Ervine described his title character as having the demeanor of Moses looking upon the promised land that he is fated never to enter. Carricart’s performance as the patriarch captures this, anchoring the play. Woods, as his daughter, more than matches him, with two especially startling moments — after she physically strikes at the villain, and when she returns from her assault — in which she leashes her suddenly revealed emotions. Saturno, Cohen and Schultz are equally effective; so is John Keating as village half-wit Clutie, although he appears somewhat too strong and robust for the role.

Sets and costume are spare — the show is performed in a bleachered studio — with an especially impressive bit of lighting-by-firelight in the fourth act by Jeff Nellis. Play was enormously influential when first produced in New York in 1919. A group of idealistic theater dilettantes decided to form a new theater that would reject the crass commercialism of Broadway. Their first offering was a quick failure. They opened “John Ferguson” with $18.50 left in their coffers. (Their last $800 went to build the set.) Play was received with don’t-miss-it raves, the announced 5-perf engagement quickly open-ended to 177. The Theater Guild was properly launched, with profits and subscribers from “John Ferguson” enabling them to produce their first Shaw play, “Heartbreak House” (also currently being revived by Roundabout).

The searing dramatic realism of the Ervine play can also be said to have paved the way for Guild-playwright Eugene O’Neill (with obvious parallels of plot and theme in O’Neill’s 1920 breakthrough, “Beyond the Horizon”). The Guild remained a major force on Broadway for more than 40 years. When the troupe began “Theater Guild on the Air” in 1948, its first presentation was not O’Neill, Shaw, Barry or Behrman; it was “John Ferguson,” the play that saved them from near-immediate extinction.