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Struggles abound as ‘Sons and Lovers’ fails to shock or enthrall

The production plays out like a disconnected series of scenes in which characters do the things that the script (and the novel before it) dictate they must do.

Miles Borchard (from left), Brian Boller, Emma Brayndick and Corrie Riedl (background) in Greenhouse Theater Center and On The Spot Theatre Company’s U.S. premiere of “Sons and Lovers.”
Miles Borchard (from left), Brian Boller, Emma Brayndick and Corrie Riedl (background) in Greenhouse Theater Center and On The Spot Theatre Company’s U.S. premiere of “Sons and Lovers.”
Lisa Lennington

Shock value rarely lasts. What was scandalous today is par for the course tomorrow. And if more than a century has elapsed — as is the case with D.H. Lawrence’s 1913 novel “Sons and Lovers” — it takes a bit of digging to discover what was so shocking in the first place.

While it’s certainly the case that the novel’s Edwardian-era transgressions are not the sole reason the book is considered a classic, it does speak to the ability of adapting the work for modern audiences. The scandal might have worn off, but it still points to the beating heart of the novel, a pulse that Mike Brayndick’s dutifully dull production of On the Spot Theatre Company and Greenhouse Theater’s collaboration fails to locate.

Lawrence’s tale spans years in the life of the Morel family, a working-class Nottinghamshire clan whose familial bonds prove nigh unbreakable — so much so that their younger son Paul (Miles Borchard), is unable to find love that outshines the somewhat toxic affections of his own mother Lydia (Amy Gray). Stuck in a bad marriage to a hard-drinking, occasionally abusive coal miner (Stephen Dunn), Lydia gives up on ever actually loving the man and instead loves her two sons with all her being.

After her eldest, William (Brian Boller), dies of pneumonia while living in distant London, Lydia turns all of her attention to Paul. Although he falls first for a sweet local farm girl, Miriam (Miriam Leivers), and then for a passionate quasi-divorcee Clara (Emma Brayndick), neither relationship works out. Paul is filled with passion and intense hankering for physical intimacy, but can’t quite handle the more subtle demands. When the passion’s gone, only contempt remains. In the end, neither woman can live up to dear mother.

Miles Borchard and Amy Gray with Brian Boller (background) in a scene from “Sons and Lovers.”
Miles Borchard and Amy Gray with Brian Boller (background) in a scene from “Sons and Lovers.”
Lisa Lennington

Even by 2019 standards, that set-up sounds a bit perverse. And yet there is not a drop of perversity to be seen in Brayndick’s script: It’s a story about passion, romance and sex that lacks any sense of all three. There’s plenty of shouting, sure, which can pass itself off as passion. But passion — especially the sexual kind — is about more than raised voices and furrowed brows. It’s a thing that drives the characters forward and into each other’s arms. When two lovers are standing together onstage, the air between them should throb. This play does not throb in the slightest.

Instead, the production plays out more like a disconnected series of scenes (almost all of which are book-ended by clunky, mood-killing scene changes) in which these characters do the things that the script (and the novel before it) dictate they must do. There’s no reason to half the things that happen in this story — which is fine — but there’s no rhyme, either. As directed by Brayndick, there’s nothing to drive people — just the forces of plot slowly dragging them along toward a predetermined end.

And at two-and-a-half hours long, the play drags with them. Without real passion or subtext, this “Sons and Lovers” lacks all definition. It’s a congealing stew of period flourishes — much like the mish-mash eyesore of a set — garnished with a few sprigs of Anglophilia. The accents, in that regard, are actually quite good.

Brayndick drags D.H. Lawrence himself into the morass as the play’s Narrator. As portrayed by Boller (pulling double duty as the aforementioned William), this figure recounts (admittedly, semi-autobiographical) events from the perspective of an older, melancholy-filled, albeit, wiser Paul. (And were he not credited as Lawrence in the program, it would be impossible to tell that Boller was playing the novelist). At least this confusion adds a bit of spark. The play’s one true saving grace is Borchard’s performance as Paul, which is full of genuine intensity.

Adaptation is usually an act of love. The adaptor loves the original work and attempts to translate that love for new audiences and a new medium. Like a literary missionary, all they’re trying to do is spread the good word. But if “Sons and Lovers” has a tidy moral lesson, it’s that love can be a dangerous thing. Too often, adaptations of classic works get lost in translation; they are a testament to the author’s love, but themselves fail to inspire that same love. Like Paul and Lydia, it’s a love that shuts out everything else around it, including — in this case — the audience.

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.