June 16, 2003

”The Daughter-in-Law,” a play by D. H. Lawrence, written probably in 1913, about the time he was working on ”Sons and Lovers,” is interesting in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to begin. For one thing it was literally a script tossed in a drawer and forgotten, remarkable given the pedigree of the author, and it was neither published nor performed in Lawrence’s lifetime. Astonishingly, it was not seen until the Royal Court in London put it on in 1967.

That it remains an obscure work is equally surprising, because Lawrence’s tale of a marriage strained by class conflict is so well-constructed, so brutally intimate and so psychologically shrewd that it has the prescience and dimensions of an important modernist work.

Literally a dining room drama, it isn’t, finally, a great play, but even toward the end, when the playwright’s youth — Lawrence was not yet 30 in 1913 — and romantic faith outweigh his art, ”The Daughter-in-Law” is never less than fascinating. And in its portrayal of characters who, each painfully circumscribed by his or her own psychological qualities, beat on one another with merciless repetition and mounting frustration, it is reminiscent of no other playwright so much as O’Neill.

In its strong new production by the Mint Theater Company, directed with determined naturalism by Martin L. Platt, ”The Daughter-in-Law” will feel especially familiar to anyone who has seen the current Broadway revival of ”Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which it predates by more than four decades, but which is set, coincidentally, in the same year, 1912.

That was the year of a national coal-mining strike in England, an event in the background of the play, which takes place in the Nottinghamshire region where Lawrence, the son of a miner, was reared. Luther Gascoyne (Gareth Saxe), the miner at the center of the play, is a young man of earthy tastes who never aspired to anything other than what he has become, a working man who comes home each night to a wife. His wife, Minnie (Angela Reed), however, is a former governess with higher-minded, society tastes, and it is only weeks into the marriage that their mutual irritation erupts in an ugly display.

But we don’t meet either of the two central characters until after a long prologue, in which the play’s other three figures — Luther’s domineering mother (Mikel Sarah Lambert), his younger brother Joe (Peter Russo) and a neighbor woman, Mrs. Purdy (Jodie Lynne McClintock) — engage in a remarkably frank discussion of a morally dicey predicament. It turns out that Luther’s dalliance with Mrs. Purdy’s daughter, just weeks before his hasty marriage to Minnie, has resulted in a pregnancy.

The forthrightness of Lawrence’s presentation of the sexual aspects of the story is downright stunning; the play is no less salacious than, say, ”Peyton Place,” but it is written with the emotional insight of a genuinely literary intelligence. There is not an ounce of coyness in Lawrence’s script, and each character has a fully grounded and virtually unshakable sense of his or her own just deserts, and as these expectations bang into one another again and again, the pain that is created is both viscerally sharp and chronically throbbing. Rarely do you see lives so persuasively scraped raw onstage.

The Mint, a company devoted to rooting out neglected works, has had a generally sure hand in selecting plays but has too often been overly earnest in its treatment of them. Mr. Platt’s direction of ”The Daughter-in-Law,” however, manages to be reverential without soupiness; it’s a patient, confident production, well acted by an ensemble that has obviously worked hard and to good effect on the distinct (and difficult) Nottinghamshire accent, and that is especially good at keeping the characters in period in spite of the temptation to render Lawrence’s forward-looking realism in a more contemporary performance idiom.

As Mr. Saxe takes the modest and decent Luther to a pitch of inarticulate rage and frustration, he commands the show. Ms. McClintock does a thoughtful and engaging turn as Mrs. Purdy, wisely understating the eccentricity and selfishness of a character who could easily have become overly comic, without dispensing with idiosyncrasy. Mr. Russo and Ms. Lambert are marvelously at ease in a foreign time and place, especially in the play’s opening scene, in which their rapport at the dinner table is uncannily real.

Only Ms. Reed, a striking young woman (she’d be among the finalists in a Meryl Streep look-alike contest) seems unsettled by the period manners. She has some powerful moments, including the dramatic climax of the play, in which Luther seemingly destroys, both symbolically and literally, her plans for their home. But overall, her Minnie seems a bit like a visitor from the future. On the other hand an argument could be made that Minnie is actively engaged in casting off the traditionally stunted expectations of young women in favor of a more worldly sense of entitlement, and thus is herself inconsistent and unsettled on a mode of behavior.

Toward the end the play takes a wrong turn or two, but it never stops surprising, and it maintains a curious, determined foresight. The penultimate scene, for example, includes a long-winded speech by Minnie, in which she thunders out an exegesis of the relationship between her husband and his mother that seems to have leapt right from a case history by Lawrence’s contemporary, Freud. You can sense a young writer’s excitement in the scene, the thrill that accompanies being on top of a new idea, but by now of course the idea isn’t new, and the scene feels stale and pedantic.

And for a play that sets itself up as a tragedy, the conclusion is oddly sentimental. Lawrence of course placed great stock in the redemptive powers of love, especially erotic love, but the hopeful note on which ”The Daughter-in-Law” concludes has a pie-in-the-sky quality that an older writer would probably not have allowed himself. Still, even the ending is ahead of its time. It’s just what Hollywood would have done.