It’s an ill wind that’s always blowing across the Rutherford estate. Joy and affection have long since quit this dark, heavy mausoleum of a place, the seat of a factory-owning clan that lords over a gloomy mill town in the north of England and employs most of its men. It’s a house of pain for the three generations of family members who live there under the heavy thumb and cruel gaze of its patriarch.
Mary, the vivacious former shopgirl who is married to Rutherford’s son John and has recently given birth to the family’s first grandchild, asks Aunt Ann (Jeannie Affelder) why the old man treats his daughter-in-law with such icy contempt. Ann explains that her brother wanted his son to marry up in the world and was disappointed in his choice of wife. “Folk like him look for return from his business.” It’s all you need to know about Rutherford, whose smoky glass-making furnaces are likened to Moloch, the ancient Canaanite god greedy for human sacrifice.
Somewhere between Ibsen-style social realism and Poe’s ghastly “House of Usher,” Githa Sowerby’s gripping, semi-autobiographical and unjustly neglected 1912 play “Rutherford and Son” fills the TimeLine stage with meaty characters and gut-level conflict. Director Mechelle Moe, supported by a superb design and dramaturgical team, extracts every last drop of both dramatic tension and thematic insight from Sowerby’s taut, still-relevant play. More than a saga of a family gone bad, it’s a clinical depiction of how grasping capitalism and domineering patriarchy, embodied in one man, thwart the younger generation’s attempt at freedom and happiness.
Over the course of the play, old Rutherford, a widower, manages to alienate all three of his children: John (Michael Holding), the rebellious eldest son, who has come up with a revolutionary glassmaking formula that his father covets; Richard (August Forman), who has become a clergyman, a career choice that his money-obsessed, Philistine father considers a form of “shirking”; and his resentful daughter Janet (Christina Gorman), who is treated by her father as a domestic slave. The three siblings grate against each other and their tyrant father, each seeking escape from their loveless, constrictive home. Martin (Matt Bowdren), the factory foreman, is Rutherford’s trusted right-hand man. But his secret liaison with Janet violates rigid class boundaries, and Martin, the too-faithful servant, will end up betraying a trust and being betrayed himself in the harsh and unforgiving world of this play.
Old Rutherford is one of those archetypal characters that sum up an age, and Steppenwolf veteran Francis Guinan, here making his TimeLine debut, is magnificent in the part. With his heavy gait and piercing scowl, Guinan’s aging autocrat is not so much malicious as he is a force of nature, easily bending men and women to his selfish, crafty will. “It’s no good standing up against father,” Janet warns John, and it’s true: Rutherford seems an outgrowth of the gnarled tree limbs and massive iron pipes that dominate Michelle Lilly’s beautifully executed, dark satanic mill of a set.
The supporting cast is uniformly solid, each actor under Moe’s artful direction emphasizing a single defining trait, forged in response to Rutherford’s overwhelming force: John’s spoiled, sickly self-absorption; Janet’s cold, hard rage; Richard’s approval-seeking weakness; and Martin’s obsequious dependency. Rochelle Therrien is particularly impressive as Mary, her waifish charm belying a steely maternal devotion, giving her alone the strength to withstand Rutherford’s bulldozer personality.
This is a true ensemble production, with many contributors deserving of praise. These include dialect coach Eva Breneman, who brings out the distinction between the hard North Country sounds of the Rutherford clan and the more melodious southern accent of Mary; a design team that draws us in on a molecular level by wafting an industrial aroma throughout the house; and dramaturgs Lucas Garcia and Maren Robinson, whose historical research extends to displaying authentic (and beautiful) pieces manufactured by playwright Sowerby’s family glassworks in the Tyneside region of England.
TimeLine has done the theatergoing public a major service by dusting off this century-old play, which has been performed in North America only a handful of times. “Rutherford and Son” deserves to be remembered, as does its pioneering writer. It is the perfect anti-“Downton Abbey,” a bracing Edwardian tonic against the temptation to pine for the good old days. The play asks and answers the key question: good for whom? (Hugh Iglarsh)
TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 West Wellington, (773)281-8463, timelinetheatre.com, $42-$57; student discounts available. Through January 12.