By ERIC GRODE
Three people appear in the very first scene of Rachel Crothers' A Little Journey, never to be seen again. That fact alone would likely be enough to eliminate this 1918 play---a nominee for the very first Pulitzer Prize in Drama---from serious consideration by contemporary producers. In an era when one can often count cast members on a single hand, the thought of three actors spending most of the night knitting or playing Angry Birds in their dressing room is unthinkable.
But the Mint Theatre, which The Village Voice once described as a "truffle hound of half-buried treasures from the past," specializes in works from an era that thought nothing of scattering a dozen or more characters all over the stage. Its perseverance in first unearthing and then actually producing these plays has won it Obie and Drama Desk awards, along with the admiration of historically-minded theatregoers eager to see the canon creep its way outward.
For directors raised on today's smaller-scale fare, the abundance of characters can be exhilarating but also a bit intimidating. "My next play has two characters, and I'm really looking forward to it," says Jackson Gay, who is making her Mint directorial debut with A Little Journey, which is currently in previews prior to a June 6 opening. (In the last year, Gay has taken on two of the rare modern-day works to use a comparable number of performers, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and August: Osage County.)
The logistical challenges go deeper than just coordinating the foot traffic. Set primarily in a train compartment, A Little Journey caught the eye of Jonathan Bank, the Mint's artistic director, several years ago. "I read it and said, 'Well, that's impossible to produce,'" Bank says. Over time, though, he continued to knock around the idea, and he and Gay finally devised a way of staging the show.
Bank hesitates to compare the play with more established works, perhaps on the grounds that these rediscovered pieces deserve to be viewed on their own merits. But A Little Journey, which follows a wide variety of people over four days on a train headed west---reminds Gay of works by two iconic playwrights. "It's such an ensemble piece, with this group of people so wrapped up in their own concerns that it makes me think of Chekhov," she says. "And Miss Julie also came up all the time in rehearsals. Both are set at a time when all these constraints for women were loosening up, and the last scenes of the two plays really remind me of each other."
The Mint has earned a reputation for returning to certain playwrights whose fame has dimmed over the decades; its motto, "Worthy But Neglected," pertains to multiple productions by the likes of Harley Granville Barker, D.H. Lawrence and even A.A. Milne, who is much better known as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. Now it's time for the once-ubiquitous Rachel Crothers---nearly 30 of her plays were produced on Broadway between 1906 and 1937---joins those ranks.
Crothers's Susan and God enjoyed a successful Mint run in 2006, but Bank stresses the differences between A Little Journey and that 1937 work. "Crothers got increasingly interested in social comedies about a specific set of well-heeled people, the 'weekend in the country' set, where the situations are less universal," he says. "That's not the case with this play. In spite of the smallness of the train compartment, it's got a real grand ambition." One that the intrepid Mint is almost uniquely poised to address.
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.