The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd is a three-act play by D. H. Lawrence about family and class tensions, and to my knowledge there’s not a more compelling production currently running in New York City.
The Mint Theater, under the direction of the knowing and dedicated Artistic Director Jonathan Bank, produces little known plays by well-known authors — thank heavens!. I’ll never forget their Uncle Tom’s Cabin by George Aiken after Stowe’s novel — and learning that it was the most-produced play of the 19th Century. Or Echoes of The War by J. M. Barrie — who actually wrote something besides Peter Pan. But for me the discovery of plays by authors who are known as novelists has been particularly revelatory. Mint produced D. H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law in 2002-03. Lawrence wrote plays? Fine plays? Eight of them? The raw psychology, sexuality and class issues Lawrence wrote about made it hard enough to publish a book — it was even harder to pull together what it takes to produce a play that breasts the current.
For the duration of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, our eyes never leave the interior of the Holroyd’s home, a cottage in a Midlands mining town like that where Lawrence grew up. The central conflict involves a love triangle. Mr. Holroyd is a tall, strong, handsome coal miner, given to brutality when drunk and angered. Mrs. Holroyd is above him in station and lets him know it; she’s a fine boned and naturally elegant woman in this rat-infested though otherwise cozy-seeming home. In contrast to Holroyd, young Blackmore, who’s in love with Mrs. Holroyd, is intelligent and sensitive and a skilled professional — an electrician — thus also above Holroyd in earning power, status and independence.
How will this turn out and how will it affect the Holroyd’s two children — and how will they affect the resolution? In outline, the outcome of this classic situation may seem predictable but it’s not because, as in his novels, Lawrence is engaged in his passionate quest for truths below the surface. Complex forces seethe and interact: convictions, conventions, class, economics, age, fears, appetite, desire, and idiosyncrasy, and you won’t know what happens, or how it happens, until it’s over. Nor are the ethical issues easily resolved.
The acting is superb to the point where it’s impossible to separate in one’s mind the actors from their characters — even when the play’s over they continue to live. Eric Martin Brown is the burly, handsome Holroyd, Julia Coffey the refined but tough Mrs. Holroyd, Nick Cordileone the active minded, able Blackmore — I’ve never seen an actor convey erotic desire more persuasively. Dalton Harrod played the Holroyd’s forthright and courageous son the night I saw the play, and Amanda Roberts was the charming and conflicted Holroyd daughter. The perfect casting of these and others in the cast in terms of physical mien and acting skill brings to mind the limitations of repertory groups (see Twelfth Night, reviewed below).
The play has, I think, a flaw. In order to bring about the resolution, the third act has to cram in a lot of information about the coal miners’ lives and work that hasn’t been prepared in Acts I and II, and also introduces several important characters not mentioned above. The assimilation of new material siphons off some of the emotional intensity of the ending but that’s OK — there’s plenty to spare.
The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd plays at the Mint Theater on West 43rd Street in NYC through March 29.