The story behind the origins of TimeLine Theatre’s latest production Rutherford and Son is a fascinating one. Originally produced in 1912 at London’s Court Theatre, critics initially proclaimed the play a powerful new work, singing its praises. Until, that is, the writer’s true identity was uncovered: K.G. Sowerby was a pen name, and the show’s true author a woman.
The uncovering caused a good amount of insult and outrage against playwright Githa Sowerby, and the play fell into obscurity as a result, it is thought, of this gender bias. It’s a fascinating history and certainly a compelling reason for TimeLine Theatre to premiere it on Chicago stage. There’s just one problem: it’s a decent, but not great, play.
Its shortcomings have nothing to do with its relevance. In an age where Jeff Bezos seems to be taking over everything and manual jobs are falling prey to automation, the story of a family-run business struggling against industrialization is undoubtedly relatable and recognizable. And the idea of a controlling, immovable patriarch, scorning innovation and suffocating his children isn’t wholly unfamiliar either (particularly to those as obsessed with HBO’s Succession as I am).
What the play lacks instead is intensity. That which may have been shocking in 1912, such as the revelation of a surreptitious cross-class relationship, is cliche in 2019. As well-rounded and dimensional as Sowerby’s female characters are in comparison to her contemporaries, women with depth are now the expectation rather than a revelation (though not always one that’s met).
The cast of TimeLine´s production is solid, with seasoned actor Francis Guinan offering a powerful performance as Rutherford. And the scenic design by Michelle Lilly is tremendous, invoking the bitter cold and steely demeanor of our patriarch (and the weather) in the set itself.
There’s just nothing, aside from the play’s history, especially laudable. I left longing for someone to write about Sowerby, who loosely based the play around her family’s life, because her fight for autonomy and her own voice in a male-dominated world seems like the true source of potency. (Emily Schmidt)
Somewhat Recommended ★★
Rutherford and Son continues through Jan. 12, presented by TimeLine Theatre. Info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago´s Review Round-Up.
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