Review: ‘Rutherford and Son’

Michael Holding as John (left to right) August Forman as Richard confront Francis Guinan as their oppressive and narrow-minded father Rutherford in “Rutherford and Sons.” (Photo by Lara Goetsch)

RECOMMENDED

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company,
615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through Jan. 12
Tickets: $42-$57
Phone: 773-281-8463 x 6

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

TimeLine Theatre Company’s knack for staging interesting, historically significant plays that few people have heard about continues with Githa Sowerby’s “Rutherford and Son.”

Originally produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1912, the drama was a hit, then faded into obscurity—perhaps partly because it was discovered that K.G. Sowerby was a woman—until the 1980s. The National Theatre of London notably revived it in 1994 (and again in 2019), leading to it being called one of the great plays of the 20th century. A New York production followed in 2001, but other productions have included only a few in the United States, and TimeLine’s is the Chicago premiere.

Even if you didn’t know the playwright’s gender, you might easily guess it. Set in Grantley, a northern industrial town in England, in the years shortly before World War I, the quasi-autobiographical “Rutherford and Son” depicts a family—and society—in which women count for virtually nothing and are acutely aware of it. Also, the main female characters are smart and strong, while the men are weak and more-or-less self-destructive.

That’s even true of Rutherford (Francis Guinan in his TimeLine debut), patriarch of the family that owns the town’s eponymous glass works. Built up by his grandfather and father, it is now on the brink of insolvency due to a variety of factors, among them workers’ strikes and his own lack of innovation. Played with conviction and passion by Guinan (but not the North Country accent sported by the others), Rutherford lords it over the villagers and treats everyone like his servant, from his 25-year veteran factory manager Martin (Matt Bowdren) to his 36-year-old daughter Janet (Christina Gorman), whom he commands to remove his shoes even as he insults her for being worthless.

Janet and her two adult brothers, Richard (August Forman) and John (Michael Holding), live in palpable fear of their father, but each also tries to stand up to him—if “self-actualize” were in use in 1912, it would apply to them—in ways that Rutherford regards as betrayals. Richard, a curate who apparently is a laughingstock among his parishioners, not only is a disappointment to dad for not going into the family business, he tries to get the old man to forgive a worker who has robbed him, then leaves home for a new job. Janet has an affair with a worker, a comedown Rutherford sees as such a scandalous reflection on him that he orders her out of his house.

Rutherford’s most vexing adversary is John, who has returned with his wife Mary (Rochelle Therrien) and infant son after five impoverished years in London. John has a recipe for white metal (a specific kind of clear glass; the program has a useful glossary) that he claims will save Rutherford’s and make a fortune. But he’s unwilling to give it to his father. He demands to know what his place in the company will be and if he will inherit it, and he wants to sell the recipe to make some money up front.

Their exchanges are punctuated by shouting matches—with Holding’s John doing his fair share of the shouting—and Rutherford becomes enraged by his son’s machinations and determined to get the recipe no matter what. Without giving away the specifics, doing so involves inexcusable behavior not only towards John but towards the trusted Martin, who is forced to choose between his friend and “the master.”

The choice he makes reflects just how strong the class system was (and perhaps is) in England, something that doesn’t quite come through in TimeLine’s production, which is directed by Mechelle Moe. This also affects the impact of the finale. After all three of his children have left, Mary, who has remained, offers Rutherford a devil’s bargain. Disparaged by him as socially beneath John and ignored by the others as a stranger, she finds a way to achieve her goal of guaranteeing her son’s future from the inside.

While all the acting is strong, Guinan comes closest to truly inhabiting his character, even if he is arguably a little less outwardly tyrannical than one would expect. Gorman’s frustrated Janet is the most sympathetic, and Therrien’s Mary epitomizes a seemingly compliant woman hiding great inner strength. Jeannie Affelder rounds out the ensemble as both Aunt Ann and Mrs. Henderson, a villager who pleads and threatens for the sake of her wayward son.

As is so often the case, TimeLine’s intimate space serves the play well. Most impressive is Michelle Lilly’s scenic design, an elegant sitting area/dining room/study backed by a large coal-gray frame and network of pipes suggesting the glass factory. Cold and foreboding, it’s a visual representation of the family disintegrating in “Rutherford and Son’ – and is alone worth the price of admission.

I wouldn’t call this talky work one of the great plays of the 20th Century, nor is Sowerby on a par with Ibsen and some of the other playwrights to whom she’s been compared, but she does offer a unique perspective on issues that were relevant more than a century ago and still are today.