Glass-making family saga turns up the heat

When making glass, the furnace must first reach a temperature of nearly 1400 C.There were times during Friday night's premiere of Rutherford And Son at the Shaw Festival when the onstage heat nearly touched that incendiary level.

This 1912 drama by Githa Sowerby deals with a family dynasty built on glass-making, and the intensity of that process is clearly felt throughout this deeply provocative play.We're in the north of England, near an industrial town on the bleak Yorkshire moors.The Rutherfords have clawed their way to success, but now, in the words of the grim patriarch who rules his firm and his family with the same iron hand, "it's going down, down."

He's not just talking about the business. His heirs all disappoint in various ways: Richard, a milquetoast cleric, John, a neurotic dreamer and Janet, a bitter spinster.

For a while it looks as though the Rutherford dynasty is doomed at each turn.

Over three tempestuous days, a lifetime of repression, wrongs and frustrations comes to light. The family is ripped apart, the business nearly destroyed. No one involved will ever be the same.

What gives this all an added dimension is the strong feminist voice implicit in the writing. Without ever becoming overtly political, Sowerby illuminates how the men of the play try to control the lives of the women in every way — economic as well as spiritual.

This amazing script was hailed in its original production, but then vanished for 80 years until the National Theatre revived it. Since that time, there have been sporadic productions in England and America, but this marks its Canadian professional premiere.

For that, we owe a debt of thanks to Jackie Maxwell, as well as for assembling a cast that almost all do justice to the material.

Her direction shows a real passion for the play, which she has communicated fully to her leading actors.

If there is a problem, it's that, at times, the tone becomes a bit monotonous and, in striving for realistic rhythms, she has sometimes allowed the pace to grow overly lethargic.

There is also a tendency to treat some of the supporting roles as humorous relief, with Mike Shara's wimpy cleric featuring an exaggerated posture and Donna Belleville's alcoholic busybody an overwrought delivery. Mary Haney, on the other hand, balances the serious and comic elements of her tight-lipped harpy with skill.

But the rock on which this production rests solidly is the work of the principal players.

Michael Ball delivers one of his finest performances in years as the unbending Rutherford. With a mine-shaft-deep voice and graveyard-empty eyes, he commands the stage with a fearsome economy.

But the man is no mere monster. Ball lets us see the desire for succession that drives him when he implores one heir with quiet desperation, "You're my son; you've got to come after me." It's a chilling piece of work.

Kelli Fox has the most complicated journey as daughter Janet.

At first, we see her as an old maid who exists only to serve her father, but Sowerby has given her character a secret love life, and when it finally is dragged into the open and her father turns her out of the house, she explodes against him in a scene that brands the evening with greatness.

"You've ruined my life," rages Fox, a lifetime of pent-up feelings pouring out like molten lava. "I've lived in wretchedness, all the joy I ever had made wicked by the fear of you."

If I could pick one scene from my recent theatre-going to revisit at will, it would be this shattering confrontation between Fox and Ball.

The always-fascinating Peter Krantz turns in a haunting portrait of a common man whose desire to serve is in profound conflict with his impulse to be free.

As Martin, Rutherford's dogged right hand, Krantz subtly builds up a character who spent his whole life pursuing what he thought was honorable, only to learn too late that he had worshipped a false god.

Dylan Trowbridge does a nice job of combining the selfish fervour of son John with the sparks of idealism and humanity that allow you to see the man he might have been.

And Nicole Underhay elegantly underplays Mary, the outsider. Her confrontation with Rutherford in the play's final scene is totally unexpected, yet somehow right.

A play worth discovering, filled with fine performances in a production that only occasionally overplays its hand.

Rutherford And Son is well worth an investment of your time and money.

600450 Glass-making family saga turns up the heat
Date: 21 June 2004

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