‘The Daughter-in-Law’ Review: Sons and Wives
In the darkness before dawn, a sleepless woman and her daughter-in-law keep each other company.
There is no love lost between these two — Mrs. Gascoyne, a miner’s widow who keeps her miner sons close in their small English town; and Minnie, a former governess who, just weeks earlier, had the gall to marry one of them. But late in D.H. Lawrence’s play “The Daughter-in-Law,” the women are gentle enough with each other to have a heart-to-heart.
“A child is a troublesome pleasure to a woman,” Mrs. Gascoyne tells Minnie, “but a man’s a trouble, pure and simple.”
If that’s unfair as a generalization, it certainly applies to Mrs. Gascoyne’s Luther, who has passed 30 without exhibiting the slightest twinge of ambition.
An enduring mystery of the play is why Minnie, a go-getter with some money of her own, elected to marry him. As a spousal choice, he seems a distant second even to his aimless brother Joe, who still lives with their mother and, in the play’s opening minutes, sits down to a supper that she cuts up for him.
In Martin Platt’s diverting revival for the Mint Theater Company, at New York City Center Stage II, the men are not what’s captivating about this play. Rather, it’s Lawrence’s women, drawn with a capacious, conflicted sympathy that recognizes how frustrating it is for a keen-minded person to try to carve satisfaction from a stifling domestic world.
Portrayed with a fine ferocity by Sandra Shipley, Mrs. Gascoyne nurtures a bitterness about Luther’s “hoity-toity” new wife — a resentment that’s about class and clannishness, but also about loss of control, because what if her boy doesn’t need her anymore? When an acquaintance, Mrs. Purdy (Polly McKie), breaks the news that her daughter is four months pregnant with Luther’s child, Mrs. Gascoyne’s desiccated heart swells in anticipation of the humiliation this will bring to Minnie.
The gentle-mannered Minnie, in a beautifully nuanced performance by Amy Blackman, has trouble enough already. Her new marriage has descended into bickering, and Luther (Tom Coiner) is a self-pitying grump. Still, when she says in the heat of anger that she would have preferred “a drunken husband that knocked me about” to a mama’s boy, it seems a stretch.
Written in a thick, distinctive dialect of the East Midlands, where Lawrence grew up, the text leaves room for Luther to have some appealing qualities, but here he is all roughness and no complexity. There’s not even a sexual spark that would make sense of Minnie’s choice to be with him — which is a problem, because we are meant to have a stake in their relationship’s success.
His brother Joe (Ciaran Bowling) is at least kind to her, mostly; when he isn’t, the change of tenor is more confusing than anything.
As with many Mint productions, the play’s back story is part of the allure. Lawrence’s father was a miner; his mother, to whom he was exceptionally close, came from a slightly higher class. He wrote the script in the years after her death in 1910, around the time he wrote his novel “Sons and Lovers,” which has similar themes.
Not staged in Lawrence’s lifetime (and previously directed by Platt for the Mint in 2003), “The Daughter-in-Law” feels at times like a purgation — a 20-something playwright rebelling at last against the beloved mother who demanded too much of him emotionally. When Minnie blames Mrs. Gascoyne for hobbling Luther, as if he had no agency, she can sound like she is channeling the playwright’s own wounded outrage. Rebellion, though, is not the same as revenge.
“The world is made of men for me, lass,” Mrs. Gascoyne tells Minnie.
But in the world of Lawrence’s play, the women are the stars.
Through March 20 at New York City Center Stage II, Manhattan; minttheater.org. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.