By the Book

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St. John Ervine’s John Ferguson has, like Look Back in Anger and Cats, a place in history—no matter what we think of the piece itself. It was produced in 1919 by the fledgling Theatre Guild with barely $20 to its name. Back then, the play—which scheduled for five performances—ran for 130. Had it not, later Guild presentations, such as Shaw’s Heartbreak House and Saint Joan, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra and The Iceman Cometh as well as the musical Oklahoma!, might have never occurred.

But 1919 is like a disappearing speck in our rearview mirror—the year before women got the vote, the year after the World War I armistice. In this sense, the dramatic elements of John Ferguson have a quiescent quaintness.

Set in a rundown Irish farmhouse, the title character (a mesmerizing Robertson Carricart) is poor and ill, yet swaddled in faith. He’s awaiting a letter from his brother in America that he hopes will contain a check to pay the past due mortgage. His mortgager, Henry Witherow (Greg Thornton), is a classic villain: costume designer Mattie Ullrich cloaks him in the riding boots and waistcoat that echoes economic arrogance and evil.

Similarly, the characters around John are predictable: wife Sarah (a fine Joyce Cohen) is always kitchen-fussing and keeping social order; rebellious daughter Hannah (a fetching Marion Woods) and brooding son Andrew (a gracefully understated Justin Schultz) who’s struggling to harvest a living.

Their straits are dire: Witherall not only demands his money but prays the letter will not arrive; he’s eager to evict them from the farm even knowing the move will send them to the poorhouse. Its John’s view, though, to remain fatalistic: if it’s God’s will to be booted out by their withers, so be it. When a neighbor—sheepish shop owner James Caesar (a twitchy Mark Saturno)—offers the cash for Hannah’s hand, the lass at first accepts, yet soon breaks down, for she cannot abide him. Again it’s God’s will, John Ferguson declares, sending Hannah to Witherall and accepting his fate. When Witherall makes a violent move on her, though, the action takes a tragic turn.

I offer these details because John Ferguson, staged with a kind of two-mode strategy by Martin Platt—muscularly motion-filled or gauzy-slow—is mere steps away from hoariness and melodrama. Certainly Ervine’s dialogue is oceans more free-flowing than what’s to be found in many early-20th-century texts, but it’s hardly naturalistic. It’s lyrical Expressionism with an Irish lilt. Even for 1919, the characters’ motivations and natures seem stale: of course Caesar, no prize himself and awkward around girls, wants to float the Fergusons for Hannah, as money is his only asset. Of course there’s a third party, a merry itinerant named “Clutie” John McGrath (a clownlike John Keating), to offer comic relief. And of course Andrew, in defense of his sister’s honor, initiates the bloody final action of the play.

Now ask me if I liked the production. I did! And that’s where the actors—but for over-the-top Saturno—make tasty croutons of age-old bread. The title character’s unwavering faith in the Good Book provoked moans and sighs from the audience—but they’re missing how, like a squirrel, Carricart gracefully burrows underneath his character to get at the nut of the man. At times his line-readings are so inventive there’s no time to enjoy his spot-on accent. Keating, too, understands Clutie’s tension-relieving function—so watch him when he’s doing nothing to see everything he’s doing. I do wish the play wasn’t so old hat, but my hat is off to those whose acting worked like clockwork.

Through Oct. 15. Mint Theater, 311 W. 43rd St. (at 8th Ave.), 212-315- 0231, $45.

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