Review: A Revival of Hellman’s Lesser-Known ‘Days to Come’ at the Mint Theatre
By Miles Harter, Contributing Writer, August 27, 2018
Days to Come is a lesser celebrated play by Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), one of the most renowned dramatists and screenwriters of the 20th century. Her works covered wide ranging controversial political and social themes. Hellman first received accolades on Broadway in 1934 for The Children’s Hour, when she was not yet even 30. That play concerned a false accusation of lesbianism by a student against two of her teachers; this lie led to one of the teachers being rejected by her fiancé and the other committing suicide. In 1941, Hellman wrote Watch on the Rhine, one of the most compelling American dramas of the 1940s, dealing with the rise of Nazism of Europe. The play was a Broadway success, and was then adapted into a film, with the screenplay by Dashiell Hammett, the author of many detective novels, such as The Maltese Falcon, and with whom Hellman was romantically involved for decades. Hellman was known for many other works, including The Little Foxes (1939 play; 1941 screenplay), and the libretto for the operetta Candide (1957).
Days to Come has had a rockier path, however. The play was first produced on Broadway in 1936 and it closed after a week. It was redone in 1978 in New York by the WPA Theatre, and better received then, as a “significant” play. And now The Mint Theater Company (one of my favorite theater companies which produces works which have not been mounted for decades), has revived Days to Come.
The backdrop for Days to Come is a labor strike in the 1930s at a brush manufacturing firm outside Cleveland, Ohio which has been owned by the Rodman family for generations. The drama deals with many, many issues — family relationships, labor strife, class struggles, friendship, betrayal, possible extramarital relationships, jealousy, morality, murder, domestic help, hunger, poverty, personal, education, and social problems. The diverse characters include the factory owner, his wife, his sister, two labor organizers, three strike breakers (actually, thugs), and an attorney. Hellman writes the plot and scenes very concisely, with intriguing plot twists. Days to Come was definitely a “Very Important Play” back in the 1930s, according to the Mint program notes; the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst had conspicuously walked out of the play on its opening night.
But in the play, Hellman tried to do too much. The drama introduces the many, many issues, but there is just too much there for her to successfully examine, and for the audience to absorb. There are also apparently very real and fraught connections and relationships among the characters that are not adequately explained or resolved. Paradoxically, the theatregoer recognizes from the start that this is a Very Important Play, and that it might a good play to learn from and experience. But the drama simply has no real center or heart, and, ultimately, is not particularly satisfying or captivating.
The set, designed by Harry Feiner, is spectacular. The play’s events occur primarily in the large beautifully decorated living room of the Rodmans’ house, with great attention to details. And there is also an almost magical transformation at the beginning of Act II, as part of the set becomes a shabby office-room.
The cast is flawless, admirably performing their scripted roles. Roderick Hill stands out for his exquisite performance as the do-gooder labor organizer, Leo Whalen. Larry Bull is stellar as Andrew Rodman, the factory owner who is torn between his role as the factory boss and his love for his town and its people. One of the problems with the play (not the actor or the direction) is that we do not see the complexity of Andrew until close to the end of the play. Only then do we achieve any good understanding of his feelings and motivations. Janie Brookshire is also remarkable as Julie Rodman, but as the character is written, she and the fine director, J.R. Sullivan, do not have much to work with — her thought processes are very unclear, and we don’t ever know what truly motivates her.
Days to Come, presented by The Mint Theater Company, The Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, through Saturday, October 6, 2018. Written by Lillian Hellman. Directed by J.R. Sullivan; scenic design by Harry Feiner; costume design by Andrea Varga; lighting design by Christian DeAngelis; sound design by Jane Shaw.
Cast: Mary Bacon, Janie Brookshire, Larry Bull, Chris Henry Coffey, Dan Daily, Ted Deasy, Roderick Hill, Betsy Hogg, Kim Martin-Cotton, Geoffrey Allen Murphy, and Evan Zes.
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Cover: (l. to r.) Roderick Hill and Janie Brookshire in ‘Days to Come;’ photo: Todd Cerveris.