Sunday, March 5, 2023

Becomes a Woman

Many people are familiar with Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, either from reading the classic 1943 novel or from seeing the film version directed by Elia Kazan just two years later.

Before she was a novelist, though, Smith was a playwright, albeit one more likely to get prestigious awards than actual productions. While taking classes at the University of Michigan, Smith wrote Becomes a Woman, which won the school's Avery Hopwood Award and earned the author $1,000.

Unfortunately, in 1931 no theatre stepped forward to stage the play, and the piece has remained unproduced until now. The Mint Theater Company, however, is currently bringing Smith's play to life for the first time in a lavish new production featuring Emma Pfitzer Price as Francie Nolan, the character who later became the namesake of Smith's heroine in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The Francie in the novel is a girl, but in the play the audience gets to see how a shy 19-year-old (as the title puts it) becomes a woman. When we first meet Francie she is singing blues songs at the sheet music counter of a five-and-dime store. A series of men come in and ask her out on dates, always using the same old tired line. When the son of the owner of the chain Francie works for walks in, things look like they could be different, until he uses the same line as all the others.

Act Two takes place in the kitchen of Francie's family. Her father, played by Jeb Brown, appears to be a petty tyrant, until he decides that his daughter's behavior has brought shame upon the family, at which point he becomes a much more serious and repulsive tyrant. Peterson Townsend, who plays the boss's son, Leonard Kress Jr., manages to remain charming up to a point, but after he decides to toss poor Francie over, warnings about the fickleness of men become all too true.

Francie's one real friend, Tessie, is wonderfully portrayed by Gina Daniels. She makes an adorable couple with her ambulance-driver boyfriend Max, played by Jason O'Connell, who made a splash in Sense and Sensibility a few years ago. The pair relieves some of the tension in the third act, when we finally meet the wealthy Leonard Kress Sr., played admirably by Duane Boutté. It turns out father is not like son, as the elder Kress comes to appreciate Francie's strength and sense of purpose.

What makes Becomes a Woman truly special, however, is Francie's final confrontation with Kress Jr., as Smith expresses sentiments that seem remarkably ahead of their time for 1931. Director Britt Berke helps to bring out the power of Smith's words in the scene through simple yet effective staging. It should be noted that the versatile set designed by Vicki R. Davis lives up the the Mint's usual high quality, and is effectively lit by lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, who also designed lights for the Mint's wonderful production of Conflict. In addition, Emilee McVey-Lee provides costumes that successfully evoke America during the period between the two World Wars.

Becomes a Woman is only scheduled to run through March 18th, so make sure you see it before the show closes later this month. It took 92 years for the play to make it to the stage, and there's no telling how long we might have to wait for another production of it that is this good.