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Rutherford & Son

Mint Theater Company

By Iris Greenberger
Photo: Richard Termine

When Rutherford & Son premiered at London’s Royal Court in 1912, critics raved that such an astounding drama was the work of a first-time playwright, known only as K.G. Sowerby. When K.G. revealed herself to be Katherine Githa, the self-supporting 35-year-old author of children’s books, she quickly made headlines in the United Kingdom and the United States as a “young, pretty, fair-haired girl” for her “brilliant, brutal” drama.

Set in the industrial north of England, this searing play revolves around John Rutherford (Robert Hogan), a tyrannical father who owns a family glassworks business on the edge of financial collapse. His three adult children live with him, but despise and fear him. One by one, they rebel against his iron rule. John (Eli James), his eldest son, has returned recently to the family home with his wife, Mary (Allison McLemore), and frail infant son. He has invented a process to save the firm money, and he hopes to sell it so that he can make his fortune and leave the business behind for good. Richard (James Patrick Nelson), the timid younger son, has disappointed his father by becoming a clergyman and not joining the family business. He too wants to leave his bullying father and is considering accepting a job in another town. Janet (Sara Surrey), the only daughter, is single, 36 and feels suffocated by her father. Her one hope for happiness lies with Martin (David Van Pelt), an uneducated and fiercely loyal glassworks employee who has worked in Rutherford’s plant for the past 25 years.

Githa Sowerby skillfully explores the themes of class distinction, revolt against materialism and the rebellion of adult children against a bullying parent. What is most surprising, considering when Sowerby lived, is the blatantly feminist sensibility of the play; she created strong female characters who, despite initial appearances, refuse to submit to a male chauvinist. With the exception of Ann (Sandra Shipley), Rutherford’s elderly sister, all the women in the play eventually confront Rutherford’s absolute authority.

While the cast is top notch across the board, there are several standout performances. Robert Hogan captures the essence of Rutherford, a ruthless man willing to sacrifice everything, even his family, for the sake of his business. Sara Surrey is heartbreaking as Janet, a bitter woman trying to break free from her prison-like existence. David Van Pelt is moving as Martin, a man whose spirit and confidence have been broken by his boss. Allison McLemore is memorable as a protective young mother who does whatever is necessary to ensure her son’s future. Dale Soules steals her one scene in the role of Mrs. Henderson, an elderly woman who comes to Rutherford for help after her son has been fired for stealing money from the company.

Sowerby kept her history private, but a 2009 biography revealed that the patriarch John Rutherford is based on her grandfather, John Sowerby, who owned Ellison Glass Works, one of the largest glassworks in the north of England at that time. The Mint Theater once again has dusted off a gem of a story that shines just as brightly today as it did 100 years ago.

Rutherford & Son; Written by Githa Sowerby; Directed by Richard Corley; Mint Theater Company; 311 West 43rd Street; 866-811-4111