Although author Betty Smith is best known for the four novels she published between 1943 and 1963, most notably the international best seller A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she always considered herself a dramatist with 70 plays to her credit. Unfortunately, though they won several prizes they did not result in professional productions. The Mint Theater Company is correcting this oversight with the world premiere of her 1931 Avery Hopwood Award winning Becomes a Woman. Britt Berke’s production is vigorous and absorbing but does not entirely disguise the play’s flaws.
Originally entitled Francie Nolan, the same as the title character of her later A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but unrelated to that story except for sharing its Brooklyn setting, the play does incorporate anecdotes and scenes that would later appear in Smith’s novels. Becomes a Woman is uneven in tone, with a first act that is comedic, a second that is melodramatic, and a final act that is dramatic. On the one hand, the play is now a period piece depicting strict mores and values that have loosened up a great deal; on the other hand, much of its cavalier treatment of women is still unfortunately true today. While the first two acts resemble a great many films and plays of the 1930’s concerning fallen women, it is the third act which is progressive and ahead of its time, so much so that it may have scared off the all-male producing fraternity of those days. While the women are beautifully written, the male characters are undeveloped and not believable. As a result, the acting is the same with the best performances by the actresses and some unreal work by the men.
The first act is set in a Kress Dime Store on DeKalb Avenue where 19-year-old Francie Nolan works as a singer at the sheet music counter. Her co-worker, the piano player Florry sums her up by saying:
“She’s too scared to live. How well I know that she’s afraid of her family. She’s afraid of the boss too. She’s afraid of men; she’s afraid to make a date. Imagine that! Afraid that something might happen to her. But you just wait! She’s the kind that some smooth tongued fellow will get a hold of someday. He’ll hand her a lot of love talk. When he’s though, she’ll be broken like that.” (She mimes snapping an imaginary stick.)And that is just what happens in Betty Smith’s plot.
Francie accepts a date with Leonard Kress, Jr., the smooth talking son of the owner of the chain. After three months she is ready to introduce him to her brutish policeman father and her religious mother who is most interested in appearances. But when Leonard meets her working class family and then she reveals that she is pregnant, he walks out on her. This might be the ruin of her but with the help of friends, Francie picks herself up by her bootstraps and becomes a woman, standing up to everyone, this child-woman who was previously afraid of her own shadow. By the end everyone in the audience should be rooting for her after the rotten deal life has dealt her.
Berke’s production is played to the hilt so that the audience does not have a lot of time to notice the clichés and the stereotypes of this 1920’s story. As Francie, on the verge of womanhood, Emma Pfitzer Price is always worth watching as she develops from giddy school girl, to frightened, hysterical adolescent, and ultimately a mature woman able to stand on her own two feet. As her liberated co-worker Florry who has had a great deal of experience with men, Pearl Rhein is amusing as a twenties flapper. Gina Daniels is more solid as her steady friend Tessie who runs the artificial flower counter and has had her own personal problems with men that have shaped her life.
As Francie’s Irish Catholic parents, Jeb Brown and Antoinette LaVecchia have been allowed to play them like caricatures: Brown as Pa Nolan is a big bruiser of a man, the sort of man who would greet guests in his undershirt, always ranting and raving and keeping his women folk in awe of him. La Vecchia is one of those old-fashioned women who is more afraid of what the neighbors will say than her children’s happiness. With their fixed views of the world, they are part of what is wrong with it.
Peterson Townsend as the smooth talking Leonard Kress, Jr. seems awkward and uncomfortable as a rich man about town, but that is as much due to the writing as the performance. His father Leonard Kress, Sr., owner of the one of America’s largest five-and-ten cents chains, should be played as the business tycoon that he is. Unfortunately, in a bit of offbeat casting Duane Boutté plays him like a prissy college professor. His conversion from disapproving to acceptance is so quick that it is almost laughable which Smith would have noticed if she had a chance to work on the play in a full production. As agent for a cabaret visiting her home to offer Francie a job, Phillip Taratula is so broad as to unbalance his one scene into farce, while his turn as the floor manager in the first act isn’t much more convincing.
As always with Mint Theater Company stagings, the physical production is impressive. Vicki R. Davis’ two settings, the colorful floor of the sheet music and artificial flower counters and the realistic Nolan kitchen, are marvels of period décor. The costumes by Emilee McVey-Lee are quite attractive, but is it likely Francie would have only the one black dress to wear for both dates depicted with Leonard, even though she is giving her mother her entire pay check each week? The uncredited hair designs (and wigs?) are redolent of the period. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting uses several gradations as the scenes evolve from day in the store to the evening visits by Kress men to the Nolan’s family home. The many appropriate songs, mainly from the 1920’s, are well handled by music director Emma Weiss in addition to the sound design by M. Florian Staab. As intimacy and fight director, Cha Ramos does a fine job with the most intense scenes.
While it is interesting to finally see a play by Betty Smith reach the New York stage, Becomes a Woman remains a footnote to theater history, though it would have been much more sensational if it had been staged in its own era. Britt Berke’s production is always gripping, but it fails to make the male characters any more than cardboard cutouts, while the women are three dimensional. In the style of the Mint Theater Company’s usual high standards, the physical production cannot be faulted. On an historic note, the Francie Nolan in Becomes a Woman starts at the same age as the one in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when the novel ends but without that heroine’s education. This may have been meant to be a cautionary tale as to what happened to women who had neither skills nor experience of the world.
Becomes a Woman (through March 18, 2023)
Mint Theater Company
New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.MintTheater.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission