The Mint Theater’s revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1936 play “Days to Come” is to be appreciated more as a curiosity in view of Hellman’s fame and accomplishments than a successful work. She was grappling seriously with labor and societal issues of her time but the result was rather diffuse, and the flaws as well as the strengths show in the faithful, generally well-acted Mint production directed by J. R. Sullivan.
It is easy to see why Hellman’s play flopped at the time. Her emphasis, while pointing up a labor struggle at a brush factory in a fictional Ohio town near Cleveland, dwells more on action and conflict within the home and family of the factory owner, with the drama set mainly in the owner’s house, fleshed out by Harry Feiner’s realistic period design. Good points are made, but this was a period when the left was aflame in the Great Depression and unions were on the rise as a counter reaction to unemployment. Thus the left would not find the play militant enough, and the right would be hostile to the labor aspect.
But to her credit Hellman apparently did not want to provide only agitprop. She was attempting to be a dramatist who looked penetratingly into individual lives as well as issues. Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull) has inherited the factory from his father, and as it has run into hard times, he reluctantly cut wages of the needy workers. Their union called a strike, and under pressure from his attorney and arrogant friend, Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy), he agrees to allow hired, thuggish operator Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily) to call in strike-breaking scabs at the peril of violence. That arrangement also includes having two of Wilkie’s goons, Mossie (Geoffrey Allen Murphy) and Joe (Evan Zes) into the house for protection.
Meanwhile, we meet Andrew’s lethargic wife Julie (Janie Brookshire), who not only is floundering around with the frustrations of not emerging as her own person, but is having a secret affair with Ellicott. It is not so secret with Andrew’s bitching, jealous and observant sister Cora (Mary Bacon), a persistent pain in the household.
Enter into the mess a charismatic, principled labor organizer, Leo Whelen (Roderick Hill), who comes to town in support of the strike. When Julie meets him, she becomes intrigued by his ideals, as well as feeling a romantic flare-up for him, and dares to visit him secretly one night at his office, a visit that turns out to have importance, even though he rejects her advances.
Hellman sets up all sorts of complications, including an unexpected killing and anti-labor violence that ends accidentally in the death of the young daughter of a leading employee, Thomas Firth (Chris Henry Coffey), who has long regarded himself as friendly with the Rodmans. There is also manipulative anti-union intrigue via an attempted frame-up, and, as if that were not enough to be resolved, Julie’s unfaithfulness is exposed.
One of those worth feeling sorry for is the Andrew Rodman, who has tried to maintain his illusion of fairness and decency, and needs to face what has been done in his name and also the infidelity of his wife and the shattering of a friendship. Bull does a superb acting job and his climactic outburst is a high point of the drama.
The character of Julie needs more development and emphasis, as in this interpretation—maybe it is in the direction-- she seems so at sea as to be barely existent, even allowing that she is searching for something new in life. In fact, the production itself rarely seems to ignite sufficiently.
There are too many dramatic contrivances for this to be a play anywhere nearly as good as top-level Hellman. Still, her effort to shine a spotlight on problems of her era and people caught in the conflicts was worthy, and the Mint Theater has provided a service in allowing us to see and evaluate this neglected work that was a part of the creative history of one of the last century’s important playwrights. At the Beckett, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed August 27, 2018.