New York City is filled with hidden gems and secret treasures, but the sheer number of fellow enthusiasts can make us reluctant to share our discoveries, keeping them to ourselves so we can still easily acquire tickets to shows and tables at restaurants and avoid lines at galleries, etc. But one of my simple pleasures over the last five years has been singing the praises of the small but phenomenal Mint Theater Company, which since 1995 under the leadership of artistic director Jonathan Bank has “scour[ed] the dramaturgical dustbin for worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or neglected.” As its official mission statement explains, “We do more than blow the dust off neglected plays; we make vital connections between the past and present.” Bank and the Mint have given us another wonderful gift with its latest offering, precisely the kind of play that they do so well, a work written in 1912 by a long-forgotten playwright that has not been performed in New York City since 1922. Penned by Stanley Houghton, a former office boy working for his father in Manchester in addition to being an amateur actor and theater critic, Hindle Wakes is an essentially simple morality play set in the fictional town of Hindle in Lancashire during wakes week, an originally religious, then secular holiday when mills and factories close, giving a vacation to industrial workers, many of whom head off to seaside resorts. One such mill employee is Fanny Hawthorn (Rebecca Noelle Brinkley); the play opens as she is returning home from a supposed break in Blackpool. But when she insists that she was there with her friend Mary Hollins, her parents, Christopher (Ken Marks) and his unnamed wife (Sandra Shipley), know she is lying and soon force her to reveal that she actually spent the weekend with Alan Jeffcote (Jeremy Beck), the son of wealthy mill owner Nathaniel (Jonathan Hogan) and his unnamed spouse (Jill Tanner). “She’s always been a good girl,” Christopher says with a tinge of sadness, later adding, “This is what happens to many a lass, but I never thought to have it happen to a lass of mine!” Christopher and his wife believe that Alan must do the right thing and marry Fanny to avoid public gossip and scandal, so Christopher immediately goes to the Jeffcote mansion, where he meets with Nat, an old friend who enjoys reminding Christopher that if he had followed Nat’s lead, he could have been a rich success too. It turns out that Alan is already engaged to Beatrice Farrar (Emma Geer), daughter of the former mayor, Sir Timothy Farrar (Brian Reddy), a wealthy industrialist himself, so the Jeffcotes have to decide what to do about the lurid situation with their son, a would-be playboy who doesn’t understand what all the hubbub is about.
In Hindle Wakes, which continues at the Mint’s new home at Theatre Row through February 17, Houghton, who died of meningitis in 1913 at the age of thirty-two, blurs the lines between the classes, emphasizing how one wrong, or right, turn can change a family’s future. A scathing look at the collision of old-fashioned morality and newfangled sexual freedom, the play was controversial for its time, a shocking look at a woman’s right to control her own body. Both the Jeffcotes and the Hawthorns seem to be enjoying their lives, but while Christopher does not appear to be jealous of Nat, it’s clear that Mrs. Hawthorn wouldn’t mind being a little more like Mrs. Jeffcote. But it’s also not just about wealth. “Money’s power. That’s why I like money,” Nat tells his wife. “Not for what it can buy.” The set, always a bulwark of any Mint production — many in-the-know Mint lovers stay in their seats during intermission of shows in which the set undergoes a dramatic change before resuming, although that is not the case with Hindle Wakes — designed by Charles Morgan, shifts back and forth from the striking elegance of the Jeffcote breakfast room, serviced by their maid, Ada (Sara Carolynn Kennedy), to the mundane casualness of the Hawthorn breakfast nook. The fine cast is led by Tony nominee Hogan (London Wall, As Is), who portrays the surprisingly unpredictable Nat with exquisite touches, from how he sits by the fireplace to how he moves with his cane. The costumes, by Sam Fleming, are as impeccable as ever, another Mint tradition, as is Gus Kaikkonen’s (The Voysey Inheritance, A Picture of Autumn) astute direction, which draws parallels between the two clans even as it points out their differences. The play might be more than a hundred years old, but many of the values it explores resonate today, in the bedroom, in the boardroom, and in religious institutions around America. Upon Houghton’s passing, Robert Allerson Parker wrote in the New York Press, “The death of Stanley Houghton has taken away a real force in making the English drama cosmopolitan rather than insular, in widening its appeal while deepening its insight.” Thankfully, the Mint is very much alive to continue to bring us such splendid cosmopolitan drama, a treasured company highly deserving of widening its own appeal as well.