April 6, 2000

Many families in the 19th and early 20th centuries had an aunt or cousin Lulu. She was the spinster sister who, in exchange for meals and a place to stay, did the cooking, cleaning and took care of the children when the mistress of the house was too busy.

Zona Gale’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Miss Lulu Bett,” now at the Mint Theatre at 311 43rd Street through April 23, is about just such an aunt and her rebellion.

Dwight Deacon, played with remarkable realism by Ed Sala, makes no bones about it: He’s the master of his home. A prosperous small town dentist, Dwight makes the rules that his wife, Ina (Valerie Leonard); her mother, Mrs. Bett (Billie Lou Walt); their two daughters Diana (Katharine Leonard) and Monona (Melissa O’Malley); and her sister Lulu Bett (Angela Reed) are expected to live by.

Although there are signs of rebellion from the two daughters, by and large, the family obeys the father’s edicts. That is, until Dwight’s brother – the swaggering bachelor adventurer, Ninian (Peter Davies) – shows up and gives Lulu a glimpse of what might be possible for a woman who was still reasonably young.

“Miss Lulu Bett” is a remarkable play. Reminiscent of an Ibsen drama, it delves deep into the dynamics of a family. It’s funny and sad, cruel and gentle.

Mr. Deacon uses his power. His mother-in-law has no choice; she’s too old to go it alone. His wife accepts his dominance because of the nice life and material things that go with it. The older of the daughters can’t wait until she can convince one of the local swains to gather her up and take her away.

Then there’s Lulu. The household can’t function without her. She never goes anywhere; she says she has nothing to wear. Besides, neither Dwight nor Ina ever think to ask her.

She is a slave, cooking and doing the wash and is supposed to be gratefully dependent on the kindness of her brother in-law. That is, she is grateful until her eyes are opened.

James B. Nicola’s staging, aided by Vicki R. Davis’ set designs of the inside and summer porch of the comfortable Deacon home, is solidly realistic.

When the younger daughter – the usually impish, rebellious Monona, kisses her father on the top of his bald head – they are the family next door. The family who, when looked at from the outside, does everything right but, when seen from the inside, is tormented by their conflicts.

The acting is superb. Ed Sala is the father next door, the neighbor who acts according to his principles, but stifles the lives of those who are beholden to him.

Angela Reed very subtly makes the transition from the beaten-down Aunt Lulu to a woman who can find her place in the world. The pair are a joy to watch.