Stages

Review: Timeline’s Rutherford and Son, an Early Feminist Play, Lacks Bite and Energy

Rutherford (Francis Guinan) is content to have his daughter Janet (Christina Gorman) tend to his needs and those of the household. Photo by Lara Goetsch.

Rutherford and Son, a 1912 play about power and family dynamics in northern England, is distinguished partly because it’s written by a female playwright. The production of the Githa Sowerby play by Timeline Theatre portrays an industrial family of the period where only the males are valued. Directed by Mechelle Moe, the feminist play offers insights into a region and an industry (glassmaking) that are probably not familiar to most of us. Unfortunately, despite competent acting and direction, Rutherford and Son is not a compelling theatrical experience.

From an historical perspective, it’s interesting that a female playwright of that era could write such a play adapted from her own family story; her grandfather John Sowerby built the family business—Ellison Glassworks—into a powerhouse company. The play highlights the misogyny and cruelty of a clueless paterfamilias and the treatment of women, even in upper class families. From a theatrical perspective, however, the play is just dull. As in I’m-looking-at-my-watch-when-will this-end tedious. There is some excitement in the second act when the changes hinted at in act one come to pass. The only time Rutherford and Son really comes to life is at the end of the play when Rutherford’s daughter-in-law Mary (Rochelle Therrien) demands his attention and support.

Mary (Rochelle Therrien) and John (Michael Holding). Photo by Lara Goetsch.

The elder John Rutherford (Francis Guinan) opposes the plan of his restless son John (Michael Holding), who wants to resuscitate the glass business with his new “recipe” for glass manufacturing. The other Rutherford son is Richard (August Forman), a cleric who has a chance at a position in another town, where there may be greater success influencing the pastoral flock.

Daughter Janet (Christina Gorman) is in her frustrated 30s; she spends her time in sewing, housework and long walks. Prickly Aunt Ann, Rutherford’s sister (Jeannie Affelder) also lives at the Rutherford manse. Rutherford’s man at the glassworks is Martin (Matt Bowdren), who is disastrously involved in both family and business issues.

There’s something flat and predictable about the whole play. Gorman and Therrien come closest to portraying characters who draw our interest, but there are no fully fleshed-out people with whom we can become involved. No one to really love, or hate, or even have mixed feelings about. The play, rather than the production, lacks bite and energy.

The dark and gloomy Rutherford living room is designed by Michelle Lilly with lighting by Brandon Wardell and sound by Andrew Hansen. Costumes are by Alexia Rutherford.

Playwright Sowerby, born in the north of England in 1876, left home because her father didn’t think his daughters should be formally educated, She and her sister moved to London, where Githa educated herself by attending plays and lectures; she became a Fabian socialist. Rutherford and Son, her first play, opened in London in 1912 and also was staged in New York. It was at first successful until it became known that it was written by a woman (the playbill identified the playwright as K.G. Sowerby.) She wrote a few more plays and also children’s books. Certainly Sowerby was prescient in writing a play about the treatment of women in the early 20th century. But to compare Sowerby or this play to the work of playwrights like Ibsen, O’Neill, Miller, Hellman or Hansberry is unjustified.

Rutherford and Son continues at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, through January 12. Tickets are $42-$57 for performances Wednesday-Sunday. Running time is 135 minutes including an intermission.

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