“Lost Plays Found Here.” So says The Mint Theater punningly about their mission. Founded in 1992 by Artist Director Jonathan Bank, the company gives new life to neglected plays primarily from the 1930s. Always polished, frequently charming, and often stunningly relevant, the line-up has included The Voysey Inheritance by Harley Granville-Barker, Rachel Crothers’ A Little Journey, and several works by the nearly forgotten Teresa Deevy. They have made their home in several comfortable venues around Manhattan, most recently City Center and Theater Row.
Financially slammed like every other small theater during COVID, The Mint occasionally opens their vault of recorded shows as a passive income stream. Their current offering is the intense drama, Days to Come. Written by Lillian Hellman between two better known plays — The Children’s Hour and Little Foxes — the plot unfolds over the course of a month in 1936 during a strike against a factory in a small Ohio town. Hellman chose to focus on the social impact the strike has on the close community. She conducted interviews with workers and management of the Wooster Brush Company to help her create characters of depth and conviction without the aim of solving their issues. Andrew Rodman, the owner, and Thomas Firth, the most vocal of the workers, are friends. Their long-term relationship makes their conflict more complex, especially when outside forces intervene. As events unfold it becomes clear that simply knowing a person over time doesn’t guarantee you can anticipate their actions.
Director J.R. Sullivan builds the tension between various pairs of characters, each with a distinct style and agenda. Larry Bull is the heart of the show, imbuing Andrew with surprising sensitivity and self-awareness. In contrast, Chris Henry Coffey’s Tom is all gut reaction. Coming between them is Ted Deasy’s Henry Elliot, a lawyer who’s wealth and style mask a grimy interior. In arguably the most difficult role, Mary Bacon successfully balances the symptoms of Andrew’s sister, Cora’s, mental illness with genuine if misguided concern. The rest of the cast includes Janie Brookshire, Dan Daily, Roderick Hill, Betsy Hogg, Geoffrey Allen, Kim Martin-Cotten, Wendy Rich Stetson and Evan Zes.
Recorded in August of 2018, the stream is very stable and there’s no log in process, though a valid email address is required. Audio quality is excellent and subtitles easy to read. It is shot from the audience viewpoint with straightforward camera work which never distracts. Costume designer Andrea Varga sets the tone with wonderful fabrics, which can be seen with increased clarity. And even on a small screen, the Rodman’s living room designed by Harry Feiner is lush with decorative detail.
The original Broadway production of Days to Come was a disaster. The influential William Randolph Hearst stormed out and the run lasted a mere seven days. While the work isn’t the most relatable or smooth of The Mint’s productions, it is well worth the two hour investment. It’s available On Demand at https://minttheater.org/ free of charge though April 2. A request for support will appear in the upper right hand corner at the end, by which time I hope you, too, are a fan.
Lynn Nottage on Mlima’s Tale
Playwright Lynn Nottage is seemingly everywhere. Her wide appeal and astonishing tonal range stretch from the gut-wrenching Ruined to the broad humor of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Two of her plays — Clyde’s and Sweat — are among the ten most produced of this year’s season. The operatic version of her drama, Intimate Apparel, for which she wrote the libretto, is currently on PBS as part of their Great Performances series. And she wrote the book for the Michael Jackson jukebox musical, MJ, now playing on Broadway. Her long reach is made possible in part by a form of self-care. She gives herself a mental break from covering thornier issues by simultaneously writing a comedy.
Last Thursday in an evening co-presented by the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn and Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner sat down for her first conversation with Damon Tabor. The investigative journalist wrote an article, “The Ivory Highway,” that inspired her play Mlima’s Tale. He had tracked the intertwined entities responsible for the horrendous international ivory trade. Offenders include poachers, smugglers and all-too-knowing buyers. Moved by what she read in his piece, Nottage buried herself in research. It revealed a genuine possibility of a world without elephants and she felt the need to sound an alarm. She educated herself about the communication style of elephants, especially their deeply social nature. Eventually she developed a story from the viewpoint of a rare big-tusker, beginning with his murder and following the trail through all of those who were complicit in his death. She named him Mlima, Swahili for mountain.
The script is structured as a series of one-on-one conversations illustrating the chain as Mlima’s tusks move from one possessor to the next. Always one for putting a face on an issue, Nottage had the lead character of Mlima portrayed by a human actor. This enabled her to let him more easily communicate to the audience and bring his emotions fully into the room. Rather than using the traditional approach of hiring the production crew after the cast had begun their work, Nottage brought the entire team together from day one, resulting in a more cohesive artistic statement. Oscar winning director, Kathryn Bigelow, brought her genuine outrage and big picture thinking to the initial run-throughs. The impactful concept of having Mlima physically leave his mark on all the perpetrators by smearing them in white came from costume designer Jennifer Moeller.
Mlima’s Tale, was nominated by the Outer Critics Circle in several categories when New York’s Public Theater presented the world premiere in 2018 under the direction of Jo Bonney. The book can be purchased here: https://shop.aer.io/tcg/p/Mlimas_Tale/9781559369114-9511. Performances are currently playing at 1st Stage in Tysons, Virginia and due to open soon at the Arsht Center in Miami, Florida. Productions are also being prepared internationally, though significantly not in China where the ivory trade still flourishes.
Image: Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo in the 2018 World Premiere of Mlima’s Tale. © Joan Marcus.