It’s cold in the industrial north of England. As soon as the lights go up on TimeLine’s production of RUTHERFORD AND SON, set designer Michelle Lilly’s set conveys that cold -- one that goes far deeper than the weather. A huge frame above the mantel is empty; we are left to imagine a hardened patriarch’s portrait. An ornate grill fronts a fireplace that emits light but has no coal or logs.
The straight-back chairs around a dining room table suggest affluence but also discomfort. Twisted metal pipes, evoking the family glassmaking business, fan out overhead. This is not a cozy place to be.
Most of the people who inhabit the home don’t really want to be there anyway. Apart from the senior Rutherford, played with magnificent grump by Francis Guinan, everyone else lacks better choices. By the story’s end, however, some find themselves on paths away from his oppressive domain.
TimeLine Theatre introduces audiences to Sowerby
Githa Sowerby wrote RUTHERFORD AND SON in 1912, six years before women gained the right to vote in Britain. An unknown author in this country, Sowerby illuminates women in restrictive Edwardian society but has even more to say about power. Although gender matters immensely, class and greed during rapid industrialization are her primary themes. Sowerby’s script moves from a talky opening scene to a fast-paced combustion of conflicting needs that could hardly be more relevant today.
True to TimeLine’s tag line “yesterday’s stories, today’s topics,” director Mechelle Moe anchors the drama in the specifics of its historic time period. It’s easy to jump from the early 20th century when machinery squashed the little guy to 2019 when global technology is having similar consequences. That Rutherford’s transactional nature reflects our current American leadership so closely is as chilling as the dampness of his grand house.
RUTHERFORD AND SON’s harsh nest
If Rutherford can’t get something out of an interaction, whether with his children or an employee, it has no value. Plain and simple. Rutherford’s son John refused to enter the glassmaking business, struck out on his own and married a lower-class woman. Unable to support Mary and their newborn son, he returns to the harsh nest out of desperation. But John brings along something of value: educated in chemistry, he has come up with a recipe for metal that could lower his father’s operating costs. Rutherford wants that recipe. John will only sell it to him. Everything onstage revolves around this struggle of self-serving wills.
The cast brings some heart to this heartless home, in this writer’s view. Michael Holding as John is a fine contrast to Guinan. Rochelle Therrien as his marginalized wife Mary is a determined woman. Christina Gorman as Rutherford’s daughter, compelled to remove her father’s shoes at age 35, mingles longing and anger. Jeannie Affelder gives an acerbic performance as Rutherford’s spinster sister, then pulsates with maternal outrage as the mother of a sacked worker accused of theft. August Forman as Rutherford’s other son, a curate, has confidence to match their conviction. Finally, Matt Bowdren plays Rutherford’s longtime employee Martin, both trusted and trusting, with great sympathy.
Hardly a cheery show for the holiday season, RUTHERFORD AND SON nonetheless shines a richly-deserved light on a playwright who spoke the truth to her audience – and to ours as well.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Through January 12, 2020
615 W. Wellington Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.