… All aboard …
A Little Journey is about what happens to a group of strangers back when travel across our broad United States meant a four-day train trip. Who’d be sharing your Pullman “sleeper car”? You never knew but by the end of the trip you were liable to know everyone really well.
Time: Spring 1914. Place: The inside of a Pullman sleeping car bound for the Pacific Coast, the set a marvelous evocation of a sleeping car which turns round in order to convey the train’s forward movement. The “All Aboard” sounds. Last minute visitors are shuffled off, the train pulls out of the station, and a classy seeming young woman, Julie, is near to weeping.
Not only has Julie been abandoned by her lover, she’s lost her ticket and will have to get off the train — until a free-spirited Western type of guy, Jim, prevails on her to let him lend her the money for a new ticket. And we’ve got several more days ahead for Jim to fall in love and romance her, and for the disparities between her high class Eastern upbringing and conventional views to be overcome by Jim with his own tough story and new age (for that age), rough and ready brand of personal salvation — if they can be overcome.
Beyond differences of gender, occupation and class, people become interested in one another — and in the burgeoning romance. The deaf old lady and her granddaughter returning home out West gossip with the fancy New York matron. Two Princeton boys take an interest in the pretty granddaughter. Encouraged by Jim, Julie’s upper-crust edge softens; she gets involved with a waif of woman who seems more destitute than she herself, giving the woman temporary relief by holding her baby, and finding a new attachment in the baby.
But Julie’s problems won’t go away (actually, the solution’s obvious but the playwright isn’t ready to let it happen so artificially strings things out): rejected by her New York lover because she doesn’t have her own money, devoid of occupation because as a well-educated woman of the early 20th Century she has no marketable skills, she faces the prospect of life with relatives out West who don’t want her. And then, just when her private sorrows seem overwhelming, disaster strikes, affecting everybody.
In one of the most convincing, though awkwardly staged, episodes, the common disaster faced by the passengers transforms this disparate cross-section of American society into a unified, deeply bonded group. Even the Black sleeping car porter, who in spite of his great dignity has so far been treated as a fetch-and-carry (and how uncomfortable is that to watch, even when you know “it’s a play”), gets to join the team. Faced with a poignant and important dilemma, they rise to the occasion, all pitching in and making contributions, and working it out together.
It’s fascinating to learn that Rachel Crothers was one of the most successful playwrights in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Still, as a play, A Little Journey seems somewhat dated and over-given to easy romantic solutions to stony problems. Every potential romance blooms, the Whites and the Black man link hands — things happen because they’re “nice,” without character development to support them.
Some of the sense of sentimentality might have been overcome with better casting. The acting is, at least for the most part, competent but only Samantha Soule gives a genuinely strong performance as Julie.
Again and again the Mint Theater’s productions of little known plays by well known authors, and other outstanding finds from the past have brought its audiences — certainly myself — thrilling illumination. A Little Journey doesn’t have the strength of many of the Mint’s superb discoveries.
But with its depictions of social categories, and glowingly optimistic view of America set in the context of that great symbol of American optimism — the journey West — A Little Journey is a rich and important document of social history — and if The Mint hadn’t produced it, who would know? That, and a seductive nostalgia, are excellent reasons to see and enjoy it. Disparities of wealth, class, education and race dissipate. This was one of those moments in our history when one could believe that there was a place for everybody on board.
A Little Journey plays at the Mint Theater on Manhattan’s West side through July 10.