July 11, 2005

A powerful performance by James Gale propels the Mint Theater’s arresting and admirable revival of “The Skin Game” by the Nobel Prize laureate John Galsworthy.

When the drama first opened on Broadway at the Bijou Theater in October 1920 – less than two years after the 1918 armistice, a year after the Treaty of Versailles and in the very year that the ill-fated League of Nations came into being – Alexander Woollcott of The New York Times referred to it as “a war play.”

And indeed, this tale of two English families whose differences escalate into destructive conflict is just that. To be found here are territorial ambitions, voracious industrial and economic interests, environmental concerns, generational change, hawks, doves, pacifists and innocent bystanders.

Mr. Gale, whose every appearance onstage infuses the conflict with a fierce volatility, portrays the parvenu industrialist Hornblower, who touches off the dispute by reneging on a promise he made when he bought some property from the old-moneyed, aristocratic Hillcrist (John C. Vennema) that the tenants would be able to remain.

When one tenant couple, the Jackmans (Carl Palmer and Pat Nesbit), who have lived on the land for 30 years, appeal to Hillcrist to save them from eviction, the up-by-the-bootstraps Hornblower makes clear that he has no intention of backing off or playing by gentlemanly rules.

As Hillcrist tells his daughter, Jill (Nicole Lowrance), “New people like the Hornblowers haven’t learn those rules; their only rule is to get all they can.”

How right he is.

Not only is Jill, who is a friend of Hornblower’s younger son, Rolf (Denis Butkus), caught up in the conflict; so are Hillcrist’s steely wife, Amy (Monique Fowler); Hillcrist’s loyal agent, Dawker (Stephen Rowe); Hornblower’s chip-off-the-old-block elder son, Charles (Leo Kittay); and Charles’s anguished wife, Chloe (Diana LaMar), who has vital reasons for seeing the matter settled amicably.

Although the opening scene of the second act smacks of creaky melodrama and not everyone in the cast possesses a convincing English accent, “The Skin Game,” capably directed by Eleanor Reissa, provides provocative and entertaining theater.