Hindle Wakes by Stanley Houghton, directed by Gus Kaikkonen for the Mint Theater Company, ravishes the audience with ironic modernism. Admirably, in this play from 1910 Houghton championed womens’ freedoms. Ahead of his time, the playwright created young female protagonists with sexual openness and independent spirits.
The Mint presents Houghton’s refreshing, timeless work with its usual seamless aplomb and design dexterity. Also, the superb acting ensemble steps into early-20th-century Hindle, England accoutered with local, quaint accents. The effect charms. Through the characters’ speech, the ancient folkways and culture of this industrial center of the cotton trade becomes manifest. Houghton’s themes can then strike our hearts with searing relevance.
Interestingly, a conflict between older and younger generational values centers the play. First, Houghton presents Fanny’s (Rebecca Noelle Brinkley) millworker parents, the Hawthorns, whose homey class values embody provincialism. However, Christopher (Ken Marks) and Mrs. Hawthorn (Sandra Shipley) retain a canny astuteness, uncovering Fanny’s “untoward” behavior after a serendipitous event. She has violated the sacred mores of chastity. Instead of spending the weekend with her female friend, Fanny bedded down and had an affair with Alan Jeffcote, the wealthy mill owner and employer’s son. As she lies and covers up her liaison to her parents, her doom becomes sealed. The arc of the play’s dynamic unfolds.
Considering the setting and the Hawthornes’ upset, Fanny’s actions in the view of Hindlites appear downright sluttish. Ironically, Mother Hawthorne browbeats her husband into confronting the wealthy and powerful Nathaniel Jeffcote (the excellent Jonathan Hogan) about his son’s indecent behavior. Clearly, she lays the blame at Alan’s door for luring her daughter. Thus, the remnants of Victorianism prevent any positive relationship Fanny might have with Alan in the future. For any condemnation of the youthful pair will not be accepted gracefully by either. And the parents’ will to intrude in their interactions becomes the turning point in the conflict.
By degrees we discover Alan to be an unfaithful rake who has betrayed his fiancée Beatrice with this dalliance. Beatrice, daughter of another wealthy mill owner, mistakenly believes he loves her. Thus, Alan’s cavalier betrayal damns his character and highlights Beatrice’s naïveté and innocence.
Another intrigue that intensifies the conflict between classes and generations becomes Mother Hawthorn’s suppositions. She believes Fanny’s indecent behavior might be intentional, to effect an financially advantageous marriage to Alan. As a result she believes her daughter lays more claim to Alan than Beatrice does.
When Christopher confronts Nathaniel Jeffcote, an old friend whose ambitions vaulted him to wealth, the scene’s humor shines, largely through these actors’ skills. First, discussion that a blackguard has “done Fanny wrong” establishes the trap Christopher sets for Nathaniel who vows to “make things right.” Next, Christopher gradually reveals Alan as the wanton who took sexual advantage of Fanny. Then, the irony explodes. Nathaniel becomes outraged, snared in his own promise to “make things right.” However, Nathaniel, unlike most of the unethical rich today, selects the high ground. He insists that Alan marry. He firmly counters that their sexual relationship has bonded them in marriage already. Traditionalism reigns.
Despite the planned betrothal between Beatrice and Alan and the vast wealth and power their marriage would generate, Fanny and Alan must marry instead. This becomes Nathaniel’s stern command to Alan, or he will disown him and give his wealth and ownership of the mill to his cousin.
Houghton’s characterizations and the surprising twists flip our assumptions about wealth and class. Nathaniel appears more honorable than his arrogant, presumptuous, privileged son, who lacks character. Sir Timothy Farrar, Beatrice’s father, appears to be as unethical and discriminatory as Alan. The moment Sir Timothy learns Nathaniel will disown Alan, he removes all support from Alan and all blame from Fanny. Thus, where we admire Nathaniel’s integrity, we deplore Sir Timothy’s greed and lack of resolve, laughing at this foppish fool of low decency.
Importantly, the characterizations of Beatrice and Fanny, finely portrayed by Emma Geer and Brinkley, provide the most ironic twists. For neither of the women behave like simpering females accepting of their plight and role in the culture. Fanny refuses to marry Alan whom she deems an inferior. Beatrice, though she forgives Alan his betrayal, realizes the double standard of his love for her. Certainly, he would not have forgiven her if they reversed roles and she betrayed him with another. Thus, the privileged son who has not lifted a finger to make his own fortune, has been shocked by circumstances. Where he thought himself to be a prize possession, two women reject him because of his lack of integrity and his selfish behavior.
Houghton reminds us of the importance of inner strength. Through the examples of these independently minded women, money and position matter little. The inner spiritual life matters to Beatrice, self-definition and living her own life matter to Fanny. If Fanny’s adventurous nature encouraged her to have an affair with Alan for the “fun of it,” she accepts the responsibility of her actions. Likewise, Beatrice forgives Alan but understands his weaknesses while resisting crying over his betrayal. The independence, autonomy, and integrity of both Fanny and Beatrice surprise and hearten. For they have overthrown the mores of Hindle to champion women’s freedom and self-empowerment.
The Mint has revived a treasure, finding the impassioned justice in Hindle Wakes. The integrity and strength of the characters is uplifting for us in this time of corrupt, compromised leadership. Finally, the production manifests an artistic and technical loveliness through the efforts of its design team. Special thanks go to Charles Morgan, Sam Fleming, Christian DeAngelis, Jane Shaw and Gerard Kelly.
Hindle Wakes runs at The Clurman Theater at Theatre Row (42nd Street) until 17 February. For tickets and information visit the Mint Theater website.