While Betty Smith is famous today for her novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, her great love was playwrighting; she wrote over 70 one-act and full-length dramas, some of which were performed in various venues and/or published. She only reached Broadway once, co-writing, with George Abbott, the libretto to the musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Pearl Rhein, Emma Pfitzer Price, Gina Daniels
Photo: Todd Cerveris
Smith's fascinating play, Becomes a Woman, is currently receiving its world premiere production at the inestimable Mint Theater Company, downstairs at City Center. In 1931, the play won the $1,000 Avery Hopwood Award from the University
of Michigan, where Smith had audited classes and achieved great success as a playwright. She was then invited to study at the Yale Department of Drama. (She was denied degrees from both universities because she had never completed high school.) Scholar Maya Cantu suggests that Becomes a Woman was never produced due to its exploration of "socially transgressive themes."
Today the play's themes are less socially transgressive but still hard-hitting. Francie Nolan (yes, the same name as the main character in a Tree Grows in Woman, but 19 and not, I think, the same person) works as a song plugger in Kress's Dime Store. Her job has her singing most of the day among the customers. Men hit on her constantly. The come-on of choice is, "By the way, are you doing anything tonight, baby?" She tells them, "Yes I am. And I'm busy every other night this week too. And next week."
|Peterson Townsend, Emma Pfitzer Price|
Photo: Todd Cerveris
Francie is afraid of men, a stance that Becomes a Woman sees as reasonable. The root of Francie's fear is her horror at how her father treats her mother. Florry, Francie's more experienced co-worker, is annoyed that Francie keeps turning down dates and makes fun of her whenever possible.
FRANCIE NOLAN: I'm afraid.
FLORRY: Afraid of what? You can't be killed secretly in an elevated train or strangled on the sly in
the subway. Go places where there's a crowd. Then you won't have to be afraid. But
keep out of places like the movies or taxis.
FRANCIE NOLAN: But they get so nasty if you don't go off alone somewhere with them on a petting party.
FLORRY: That's right. I once heard of a girl in Jersey who dropped dead because a man spoke two
cross words to her.
FRANCIE NOLAN: You know what I mean. If I ever got into any trouble by going out with a man, my father
would kill me.
FLORRY: I guess you'll live forever then.
Florry also explains "A girl has to really like a man before she gets intimate with him but a man has to get really intimate with a girl before he likes her. Anybody will tell you that." (In the 21st century, many people still will, but in more vernacular language). Florry and Francie's other coworker, Tessie, recognize that Francie's fear, rather than keeping her safe, actually makes her more vulnerable.
And then, along comes the boss's son, smooth, well-dressed, and charming. He flirts with Francie and doesn't immediately ask her out, which pleases her. But then he comes back and says, "Are you doing anything, tonight, baby?" She's briefly crushed, but then she decides to go out with him that very night. She thinks that because he is suave, cool, and upper class, he is different from other men. He isn't.
In the next two acts, Becomes a Woman goes some predictable places and some surprising ones. It manages to be both old-fashioned and melodramatic and forward-thinking and feminist. As with many of the plays that the Mint presents, Becomes a Woman reminds us that the past was not homogeneous. Nowadays, you will often hear people say, "Well, we didn't know better then," or "People didn't realize that then." But many did, and Becomes a Woman proves it.
The Mint's production is a bit uneven. Director Britt Berke works against the play's naturalism, particularly in the first act which is directed almost as a musical comedy. In the lead role, Emma Pfitzer Price is tentative at first but gets stronger act by act. Gina Daniels, as Tessie, gives the best performance in the show, full of nuance and humanity. Jason O’Connell is lovely as Max, Tessie's boyfriend and the rare decent man in the show. Phillip Taratula, as an agent who offers Francie cabaret work with many strings attached, manages to be both larger-than-life and absolutely real. Duane Boutté, as Kress, Sr, makes some odd character decisions and pulls them all off beautifully. Many of the other performances are mediocre, unfortunately.
Physically, Becomes a Woman is a treat from the second you enter the theatre and see the song-plugging and fake-flower departments of the Kress Store. The set is well-detailed, convincing, and attractive. The other sets, Francie's parents' home and the apartment Francie later occupies, are effective as well. And the set changes are entertaining in themselves, as is often true at the Mint, as you get to see the clever use of space through carousels and folding walls. Vicki R. Davis is the set designer.
Also top-notch are the costumes by Emilee McVey-Lee, the lighting design by M.L. Geiger, the sound and original music by M. Florian Staab, and the props by Chris Fields.
I can't help but think that Betty Smith would have been quite pleased to have a production of this quality done during her lifetime.