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A CurtainUp Review
John Ferguson

God's Word says I must love my enemies, Sarah. That is my guide in all I do.--- John Ferguson.
Ah, well, it's a quare way to look at things. If any one was to hurt me, I'd do my best to hurt them back. -- Sarah Ferguson
Would it? Men's been hitting back since the beginning of the world, but hitting back has learned no one anything but hatred and bitterness.---John Ferguson

John Ferguson
John Keating (top) and Justin Schultz
(Photo: Richard Termine)
When the house light dimmed for the intermission of the Mint Theater Company's revival of St. John Ervine's 1919 drama John Ferguson a man sitting near me turned to his companion and declared "There goes your Chekhov gun." He was, of course, referring to the famous Chekhovian motto that if you see a gun in the first act, it's bound to go off before the end. Indeed, it won't surprise anyone that the gun mounted over the fireplace of farmer Ferguson's Ulster County kitchen is not just there for decoration. Neither are you likely to be surprised as to who will use that gun, on whom, and why.

St. John Ervine's drama also contains a symbolic gun, this one the well thumbed bible in which the beleaguered but unfailingly pious title character (Robertson Carricart) never fails to find ammunition for dealing with his sorrows. Those sorrows, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet "come not as single spies but in battalions." For starters, Feguson is ill and unable to work. His son Andrew (Justin Schultz) has done his best to step in, but that best is not very good. Then there's the hard hearted landlord (Greg Thornton) ready to take over the failing farm unless a check from a brother in America arrives. When it doesn't Feguson's beloved daughter Hannah (Marion Woods) becomes the sacrificial lamb in this struggle for survival.

While this is a predictable story, full of stock melodramatic elements, it's worth seeing for the pleasure of watching the drama unfold at a leisurely, old-fashioned pace so that the characters gain depth and dimension. The holier than though Ferguson is revealed to be no better than anyone else when it comes to making a life and death decision and though the playwright virtually forces him back into his virtuous mold, he leaves him his bible as a form of medicine for the bitter reality he must live with.

The play unfolds over four acts (conflated into two parts with a single intermission), over a period of two weeks. The first act more or less established the Ferguson family's dilemma. Since the senior Ferguson took ill, the son who was to be educated as a minister has run the farm devotedly but ineptly. The plea to the brother in America for a check that would pay the overdue mortgage and save the farm (at least for a while) has not been answered. The other possibility to save the family from financial ruin would be for daughter Hannah (Marion Woods) to marry James Caesar (Mark Saturno), a neighbor who's sweet on her. Caesar has managed to overcome similar unhappy dealings with Henry Witherow, the mean spirited landlord. But for all that he has money, Caesar is a sadsack sort of man and it's easy to see why Hannah finds him repulsive. With the practical Mrs. Ferguson's (Joyce Cohen) encouragement and a visit from the nasty Witherow bringing the family situation to a head, Hannah agrees to marry Caesar and her father turns a blind eye to the cost of her decision. His wife's protests not withstanding, he supports her later change of heart. On the other hand, when the girl experiences quite another disaster, unlike his wife and her brother, he turns the otherr cheek instead of avenging her. However, when the very structure of his family is threatened with collapse, Ferguson's faith in God's Worth is shaken to the point where he proves himself far less saintly than all his Bible quoting implies.

Mark Saturno
(Photo: Richard Termine)
The actors playing the Fergusons are all excellent and Greg Thornton is appropriately slimey as the nasty Witherow but the plummiest roles belong to Mark Saturno and the lovestruck, chicken liverered Caesar and John Keating as a typical Irish countryside play character, the dumb but crafty "Clutie" John McGrath.

Under Martin Platt's direction, the story moves effortlessly from quiet despair to intense despair and anger, then back to quiet acceptance. The pacing is almost too leisurely, especially the ending. However, this does give you a sense of these austere lives. The story telling is greatly enhanced by Bill Clarke's set. It's pure Irish and evocatively lit by Jeff Nellis. Mattie Ulrich's costumes and Lindsay Jones' incidental music add to the autnticity of the production.

I suppose John Feguson is a play that could easily be embraced by all the evangelicals who have encouraged Fox films to recently establish a religious division. However, more open-minded audiences will recognize its subtle expose of hypocrisy. St. John Ervine may leave his pious farmer with his bible to sustain him -- but only after making him see himself as a man willing to bend the good book's words to his not so Godly willingness to sacrifice a man's life in order to keep his own little family intact.

Next up at the Mint is The Madras House by Harley Granville-Barker, the author of one of the company's biggest hits, The Voysey Inheritance. Gus Kaikonen, a Mint regular will direct.

Playwright: St. John Ervine
Directed by Martin Platt
Cast: Robertson Carricart, Joyce Cohen, John Keating, Terrence Markovich, Mark Saturno, Justin Schultz, Greg Thornton, and Marion Wood
Sets: Bill Clarke
Costumes: Mattie Ullrich
Lighting design: Jeff Nellis
Sound design: Lindsay Jones
Mint Theater, Third Floor, 311 West 43rd Street.212) 315-0231
Running Time: 21/2 hours, including one intermission
From 9/08/06 to 10/15/06--extended to 10/29/06; opening 9/25/06
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7 PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM.
Tickets $35 in previews and $45 thereafter

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