March 5, 2009

Even if you didn’t know the title, it would be clear from the first moments of “The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd” that death (and perhaps something worse) is approaching. A grime-encrusted man enters a dim ramshackle cottage, startling the fragile nerves of a woman standing by the fireplace — Mrs. Holroyd — who calls him “the evil one out of the darkness.” His name: Blackmore.

More than a bit of gothic gloom finds its way into D. H. Lawrence’s 1914 elemental tragedy about an unraveling working-class marriage in this psychologically probing and characteristically intelligent production by the Mint Theater Company, the chief treasure hunters of lost literary gems on the Off Broadway scene. Mrs. Holroyd (Julia Coffey) is stuck in a loveless marriage with her crude husband (Eric Martin Brown), a miner, while an admirer, Blackmore (Nick Cordileone), an electrician (“We’re the gentlemen on the mine,” he says), makes his seductive advances.

This is a difficult play, with a heavy hand and a century-old political backdrop; this brand of working-class realism was rare in the early 20th century. But the Mint, which in 2003 revived “The Daughter-in-Law,” another rarely produced play by Lawrence, does not pander. In “Mrs. Holroyd” the director, Stuart Howard, zeroes in on the small but important class distinctions at the heart of this story and illuminates the earthy, often-inaccessible slang. Of her husband, Mrs. Holroyd says he “toffed himself up to the nines, and skedaddled off as brisk as a turkey-cock.” (Amy Stoller worked on the scrupulous Yorkshire dialect.)

In a letter written the year before he finished the play, Lawrence described wanting to break away from the “bony, bloodless” dramas of the day. His vivid prose earned praise from George Bernard Shaw, one of the authors of those works that Lawrence ridiculed. “I wished I could write such dialogue,” Shaw said. “With mine I always hear the sound of the typewriter.”

It’s the considerable accomplishment of Ms. Coffey and Mr. Brown to make these lines sound like something more than a foreign language. Mr. Holroyd has the thickest accent, and at first his callous treatment of his wife comes off as mere loutishness. But his character becomes clearer through the Strindbergian battle of this couple; each plays a part in the toxic relationship. And so does the world around them, hinted at in Marion Williams’s striking set design of a broken- down room with only a door between the mundane domestic scene and the dark, ominous expanse outside. You never hear a typewriter, but you might detect the clicketyclack of something sinister on the way.