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TimeLine Theatre’s ‘Rutherford and Son’ is a decent production of a decent, if forgotten, play

Francis Guinan stars in this Chicago premiere of an English family drama by Githa Sowerby that originally was produced in 1912 to good success, then rediscovered by England’s National Theatre in 1994 and re-revived last May. 

Janet (Christina Gorman, center) looks on as John (Michael Holding, left) confronts his father Rutherford (Francis Guinan) about an invention he believes will help him break away from the family in TimeLine Theatre’s “Rutherford and Son.”
Janet (Christina Gorman, center) looks on as John (Michael Holding, left) confronts his father Rutherford (Francis Guinan) about an invention he believes will help him break away from the family in TimeLine Theatre’s “Rutherford and Son.”
Lara Goetsch

I’m a sucker for the promise of the forgotten play. Just think how many rich works have been written over the centuries that would be worth reviving and savoring. There must be unknown masterpieces, right?

But the truth is that these finds have proven incredibly elusive. Even when genuinely interesting, they tend to quickly fade into obscurity again because, after all, there was a reason they did in the first place.

The early Arthur Miller play “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” which flopped on Broadway in 1944 and lay dormant until 2000, could be considered the epitome of the crop. It’s a pretty good play, but it quickly was once again forgotten as theater companies chose instead to mount Miller’s more famous and polished works.

Enter “Rutherford and Son” by Githa Sowerby, an English family drama originally produced in 1912 to good success and rediscovered by England’s National Theatre in 1994. It was considered a solid unearthing of a quality play but didn’t exactly take the world by storm. Still, last May, the National Theatre re-revived it.

Now, Timeline Theatre finally is giving the play its Chicago premiere.

And guess what? It’s a pretty good play. Genuinely interesting. The characters are fully dimensional. The story is compelling, if overly predictable. And it definitely brings to mind the likes of Henrik Ibsen, whose works this play has been compared to since its initial run.

Yet, in the future, if given the choice…. I would recommend Ibsen.

Set in Northern England in an industrial town, the play delves into the travails of the Rutherford family. It starts, as Chicagoans can understand this exceptionally cold November, so frigid that it forces people who don’t really like each other much to spend time in the common room to be closer to the fire.

The overbearing patriarch runs the family’s glass factory — called, of course, Rutherford’s — and treats his three adult children as his subjects to rule. As Francis Guinan, in an excellent performance, makes perfectly clear, his children uniformly disappoint him.

Rutherford (Francis Guinan, left) is disappointed that his children, including Richard (August Forman), do not want to carry on the family business in “Rutherford and Son” at TimeLine Theatre.
Rutherford (Francis Guinan, left) is disappointed that his children, including Richard (August Forman), do not want to carry on the family business in “Rutherford and Son” at TimeLine Theatre.
Lara Goetsch

One son Richard (August Forman) has become a curate but not a respected one. His other son John (Michael Holding) married a working-class woman named Mary (Rochelle Therrien), whom the family treats as a stranger. And daughter Janet knows not what to do with herself, as she isn’t supposed to do servant tasks but also isn’t allowed to work since most of those in town with a job work at the factory and are therefore, in Rutherford’s eyes, “working people” and beneath them.

It’s a house without any love, Mary explains. A cold, cold house in more ways than one.

But there are glimmers of hope. Richard has been offered a new job. John has invented a formula that could create enough efficiency at the plant to save it from hard times, with labor strikes crippling the country and driving up the price of coal. It’s his ticket to getting paid. And Janet has been having a secret romance.

Did I mention this was like Ibsen? Don’t expect this to go well for the children, though Sowerby fits in a sort-of happy ending that keeps the play from the full level of tragedy that might make it more affecting.

What distinguishes “Rutherford and Son” and makes it a worthy revelation is how it portrays the women. It was, after all, written by a woman whose family actually owned a glass factory. Janet and Mary are infinitely more sensible than the men, even better deal-makers when given the chance, which Mary is able to demonstrate in the final scene. It’s the patriarchal system, Sowerby suggests, that stultifies.

Some of the performances sparkle. Guinan brings a natural sense of naturalism to the part even when other actors don’t always follow his lead. Jeannie Affelder plays two supporting roles — Rutherford’s crusty sister and a vocal townswoman — and executes both superbly. And Gorman and Therrien turn the female leads into characters you want to root for, particularly over the rather silly sons.

Director Mechelle Moe has prioritized speed and technical accuracy of Northern English accents a bit too much over clarity of language and drama. The production feels rushed, and the sense of tension and mood could be enhanced.

Overall, this is a decent production of a decent play. Intriguing but not exciting.

Maybe someone will do it again in 50 years.

Steven Oxman is a freelance writer.

Mary (Rochelle Therrien) has a proposal for Rutherford (Francis Guinan) in TimeLine Theatre’s “Rutherford and Son.”
Mary (Rochelle Therrien) has a proposal for Rutherford (Francis Guinan) in TimeLine Theatre’s “Rutherford and Son.”
Lara Goetsch