A Little Journey
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
June 5, 2011
Rachel Crothers (1878 – 1958), one of America’s most prolific playwrights, opened 27 plays on Broadway between 1906 and 1940. She also often produced and directed her own work as well as the work of other writers. Crothers worked with dozens of the best known performers of the time including Ethel Barrymore, Gertrude Lawrence, Spring Byington, Tyrone Power, Katharine Cornell, and Tallulah Bankhead.
A Little Journey first opened on Broadway in 1918, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and ran for 252 performances. A play that was written almost one hundred years ago is decidedly a period piece and should be treated as such. The Mint Theater Company’s delightful revival allows us a glimpse into 1914 and follows the experiences of Julie Rutherford, an orphan raised by a wealthy aunt in New York City who at the onset of the play has lost all of her money and is obliged to send Julie out on her own. Having no place to go, Julie finds she must turn to her married brother, who has seven children and who resides in Montana.
Director Jackson Gay has assembled a top-notch ensemble and he keeps them centered and real throughout. The entire company does exemplary work with language that in less skilled hands might have proved a bit over the top. But here we are successfully transported to early twentieth century America. We first meet Julie boarding the train and bidding her wealthy socialite friends Kittie and Ethel (extremely well personified by Victoria Mack and Joey Parsons) and her ineffectual fiancé Alfred (a smooth talking John Wernke) farewell. She is desperate, feels her situation to be hopeless and even contemplates suicide.
Julie then encounters a true cross-section of society in a Pullman car full of strangers as the train begins its four-day journey from New York to California. Samantha Soule as the despairing Julie Rutherford leads the cast with skill and assurance, inviting the audience into Julie’s journey of self discovery. McCaleb Burnett exudes earnest charm as the benevolent and attractive Jim West who befriends Julie and steers her transformation. Rosemary Prinz is very amusing as deaf grandmother Mrs. Bay traveling with her granddaughter Ethel Halstead, a sweet and winning Chet Siegel. Ben Hollandsworth and Ben Roberts play mischievous college youths Frank and Charles. Jennifer Blood plays Annie, an unwed mother traveling in distress with her new baby. Craig Wroe is terrific as the “always on” salesman. Douglas Rees is successful in the dual roles of the conductor and wealthy obnoxious Mr. Smith. Laurie Birmingham is wonderfully nuanced and reminds one of the best of Angela Lansbury as society matron Mrs. Welch. And Anthony L. Gaskins earnestly plays the porter kept on his toes by the demanding passengers.
Every technical element in this production comes together to support this impressive cast. The effective set by Roger Hanna is an inventive gem. Hanna has created his Pullman car on a turntable that certainly keeps the roaring locomotive from being static. The set moves much like a carousel giving emphasis and focus when and where it is needed. The period costumes by Martha Hally are charmingly accurate and very effective in delineating the social strata of each of Crothers's characters. Lighting and sound effects persuasively impact the action at the end of Act Two and propel us into the third act expecting the worst.
My only disappointment (and it was only a slight one) was that I wished all recognizable elements of the train could have been removed when they were no longer required. But given the modest constraints of the theatre, the production values are exemplary. The Mint Theater Company’s continuing mission of presenting worthy but neglected plays sets this theater apart from others. Where else can confirmed theatre aficionados find these hidden treasures fully realized? Crothers’s A Little Journey proves again why the Mint Theater Company is an invaluable asset to the New York theatre community.