February 27, 2012

‘Life in this house is intolerable,” someone moans in the terrific British family drama “Rutherford & Son,” now at the Mint.

But while the home’s gloomy, Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play is a theatergoer’s delight — an absorbing yarn that keeps you glued to the fate of its despondent characters, and the awful man who rules their roost.

His name is John Rutherford (Robert Hogan), and he runs the glassworks company that bears his name in England’s industrial north. His authority extends to his house, where his grown children cower in his shadow.

Unmarried daughter Janet (Sara Surrey) is a stern, glum woman who at first glance looks like the play’s answer to Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca.”

Richard (James Patrick Nelson) is a brow-beaten clergyman, while his embittered older brother, John Jr. (Eli James), recently had to move back — his young wife, Mary (Allison McLemore), and an infant son in tow.

Junior has just come up with a potentially lucrative invention that could turn the family business around, and he’s trying to use it as a bargaining chip in his never-ending tug-of-influence with Senior.

But the elder Rutherford has crushed everyone’s soul to maintain his control. Even the siblings are at odds, their relationship poisoned by suspicion and envy.

The most heartbreaking scenes belong to Janet, who as a woman had even fewer options than her brothers. She’s put all her hopes into her love for ruddy-cheeked foreman Martin (David Van Pelt), but underestimates her father’s hold over his employees.

Despite “Masterpiece Theater”-like trappings, Sowerby hits hard — this is a family where siblings rat on one another. If only director Richard Corley had staged the play with less politeness and more fire. Rutherford Sr. may not be an ogre, but Hogan plays him with too much reserve, as if he were an accountant, not a captain of industry.

In the end, it’s the women who emerge the most vividly. Janet, the hopeless daughter, sinks into devastation, while Mary goes from timid wife to master negotiator and confronts the old codger on his own turf.

Turns out wolves should beware of lambs.