Footloose meets A Man for All Seasons in the US debut of Elizabeth Baker’s 1913 play, The Price of Thomas Scott, which opened last night in a lovely Mint production at the Clurman at Theatre Row. It’s the first presentation of the Mint’s “Meet Miss Baker” series, a two-year program that will feature three fully staged works by the little-known British playwright in addition to readings of two one-acts and the publication of a book on Baker, similar to the company’s ongoing Tessa Davey Project. The Price of Thomas Scott, which previously had only one production more than a century ago, at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, takes place over two days in the early 1910s in the back parlor of a drapery, as clothing shops were called then, owned by Thomas Scott (Donald Corren), where he works with his wife, Ellen (Tracy Sallows), and daughter, Annie (Emma Geer), an expert hat trimmer who dreams of going to Paris to hone her craft and return to “bust up the town.” Meanwhile, the Scotts’ fifteen-year-old son, Leonard (Nick LaMedica), is hoping to sit for a scholarship; if he wins and the family can support some supplementary fees, it will send him to a better school that will put him on track for a respectable career in the civil service. “It’s hateful to be poor,” Annie says.
Thomas is a devout churchgoer, a member of one of several conservative Protestant denominations known as Nonconformists in Great Britain. He’s ready to sell the store after decades of toil, waiting for an offer so he and Ellen can retire to the middle-class suburb of Tunbridge Wells, a print of which hangs on the wall, beckoning them. A deeply religious man, Thomas is firmly against dancing, believing it to be immoral; he also rejects drinking and theater. When Annie asks if she can go to a dance at the town hall with her friend May Rufford (Ayana Workman), her father is at first hesitant to even consider such a request. “You don’t suppose I like keeping her back, do you — saying no to her?” Thomas asks May’s father, George (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), continuing, “The flesh is weak at times, George, and the way of righteousness is hard.” So when a surprisingly large offer is made on the shop by Wicksteed (Mitch Greenberg), a longtime acquaintance working for a company opening dance halls in the neighborhood, Thomas is faced with a difficult dilemma, whether to stand by his conscience or sell and improve the family’s situation significantly.
Directed by Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank (Katie Roche, Temporal Powers), The Price of Thomas Scott is a well-staged drama that evokes the conflict at the center of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, in which Sir Thomas More must decide whether to go against his conscience and his religious beliefs in order to save his life and help his family. (Coincidentally, a fine revival of the play is now running at Theatre Row as well.) It also is reminiscent of Herbert Ross’s 1984 film, Footloose, in which a small Utah border town has banned dancing and rock music for religious reasons. Corren (Torch Song Trilogy, Balls) portrays Thomas not as a villain but as a deeply principled man who is tortured by the decision he must make; Corren’s body is as tense and rigid as Thomas is stubborn and unyielding. It is apparent Scott has never danced a day in his life and that he couldn’t even if he desired to. Still, as much as his friends and family wish him to sell, it is difficult not to admire the courage of his convictions. “He’s a dear old thing, of course, but you know he’s just frightfully old-fashioned,” Annie tells Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize), the Scotts’ lodger who is in love with her. However, Johnny’s friend Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding) says, “Every man has his price.”
Sallows (Angels in America, Pushkin) is ever-so-gentle as Ellen, who is so devoted to her husband that she will not try to change his mind, no matter how much she wants to let Annie go to a dance, encourage Leonard to compete for the scholarship, and urge her husband to sell the shop. Amid the British suffragist movement, she is not ready to cast her vote against her husband, although the shop is arguably as much hers as his, and she deserves a say in the family’s financial future. The Mint’s sets are always exceptional, and Vicki R. Davis’s parlor room has a charm that posits the Scotts’ precarious station. The only disappointment is that the intermissionless ninety-minute play has only one location; watching Mint set changes during intermission has become an event valued by those in the know. As for meeting Miss Baker: Born in 1876, Baker was a teetotaler raised in a strict, religious lower-middle-class family that was in the drapery business; she didn’t go to the theater until she was nearly thirty and didn’t marry until nearly forty. The semiautobiographical nature of The Price of Thomas Scott imbues it with an honesty that is potent, with a slyly funny bonus at curtain call. “Meet Miss Baker” continues March 3 with readings of Edith and Miss Tassey, followed in summer 2020 by repertory performances of Partnership and her debut, the breakthrough Chains; The Price of Thomas Scott runs through March 23.