nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
September 7, 2012
Mary Broome, written by Allan Monkhouse, more than 100 years ago, is given a delightful revival at the Mint Theater (The play originally premiered in New York at the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1919). The script instantly conveyed the sense that it was certainly daring at its inception in 1911. These days with Downtown Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs being readily accepted, the unusual step of a domineering father forcing his younger son to actually marry the housemaid he has just impregnated loses it’s shock value.
Described in the press material as a “biting comedy” this Edwardian era script examines subjects of class division, morality, and women’s struggling role in society. As the Timbrell family is preparing for the marriage celebration of their responsible elder son Edgar (Rod Brogan) it is discovered that their flighty younger son Leonard (Roderick Hill) has made Mary Broome (Janie Brookshire), “the best house maid the Timbrell’s ever had”, pregnant and he is about to fly the coop. Edward Timbrell (Graeme Malcom), the family patriarch lays down the law and Mary and Leonard agree to marry - on Mary’s part for the sake of the child and on Leonard’s side for the sake of 300 Pounds a year, for he does not seem to have the ability to earn money as the writer he purports himself to be. This paternal action elicits shocked reactions from Leonard’s upstanding brother Edgar, his spoiled sister Ada (Katie Fable), and his sister-in-law to be Sheila (Julie Jesneck). Only Leonard’s put upon mother Mrs. Timbrell (Kristin Griffith) befriends Mary Broome and has her best interests at heart.
Directed with assured insight by Jonathan Bank, Monkhouse’s clever, witty dialogue certainly is entertaining and thought provoking. Costumes by Martha Hally are delightful to look at and spot on to the period of the piece. Sets by Roger Hanna and lights by Nicole Pierce do a great deal to illuminate the proceedings. In particular, Hanna’s design of the ever present ancestral moralities embodied by the paintings provide a backdrop to the impressionistic Edwardian set.
The play has echoes of Shaw’s Pygmalion and Wilde’s The Ideal Husband in the central characters of Mary Broome and Leonard Timbrell. Monkhouse seems to be setting up a contrast between the comedic fantasy of Shaw and Wilde and his own comedic reality in which the characters face more serious life challenges. Leonard, in particular, like Lord Goring is king of the sardonic quip yet despite his oozing charm, his quick wit, and his handsome intellect we end up really wanting to punch him in the face because of his inability to cope and do the right thing. It is a fascinating comparison. Roderick Hill offers a wonderful performance of this complex character. Janie Brookshire as Mary is earnest and winning and Graeme Malcom and Kristin Griffiths perfectly represent Leonard’s embattled parents. The rest of the cast Julie Jesnick, Katie Fabel, Rod Brogan, Erica Swindell, Jill Tanner, Peter Cormican and Patricia Kilgarriff all turn in excellent support. Authentic Manchester dialects by Amy Stoller help us to easily distinguish between the upper and lower classes.
The play flies by in a flash and comes in at less than two hours and while we have been presented with an interesting story and some compelling ideas the script feels a bit underwritten especially with regard to the female characters. As the title character, Mary Broome never seems to hit her stride and Leonard’s mother is continually prevented from speaking her mind and her deeper experiences are only hinted at by her son. But despite these flaws the play still communicates the Edwardian feminine desire to live life as more than a mother or a wife. “There is something in what these suffragettes are saying” mumbles Mrs. Timbrell as she ponders Mary’s difficult situation. Surely it is no coincidence that the play is called Mary Broome even though she becomes Mary Timbrell so quickly. Mary retains her identity and Mrs. Timbrell continues to search for her voice while the male characters do not seem to have evolved by their experiences in any significant way.
Mary Broome may not be the most worthy of neglected gems but it is absolutely worthy of a trip to the Mint to experience an excellent production of this unusual and early modern play.