The final installment in Mint Theater Company’s three-play series of undeservedly forgotten works by English playwright Elizabeth Baker is the American premiere of Partnership, which made its debut at London’s Court Theatre in 1917, and is now playing a limited engagement at Theatre Row. Directed with an eye on the period-style humor and early feminist insights by Jackson Grace Gay, the three-act romantic comedy considers the importance of achieving a happy balance between work and life, business and love, from the Victorian perspective of a working woman.
At the center of the story is Kate Rolling, the ambitious hard-working owner of a small upscale garment shop in Brighton. The play opens in the private back room of Rolling’s, where she and the staff, customers, businessmen, and suitors meet and converse, gossip and plan, face disappointments and unexpected opportunities, both professional and personal.
While hoping, through the auspices of her demanding and flamboyantly dressed new client Lady Smith-Carr-Smith, to bring the Duchess of Wideacres into the store, a visit from George Gillatt, who owns the largest shop in town (and sent his aristocratic client to Rolling’s), arrives with a valuable proposal to enter into a partnership, and matrimony, to expand their businesses. It’s an offer the enterprising Kate – after telling her friends “I never expected anything great in the way of love” – can’t refuse, until she meets Gillatt’s shy, wealthy, and nature-loving old schoolmate and associate Lawrence Fawcett, who has given up most of his own business, is on extended holiday, and shows her that there’s more to enjoy in life than toiling endlessly to make money.
She is intrigued and plans a Saturday trip to the coastal Downs for tea with him, Gillatt, her boisterous costumer Maisie, and her flirtatious date Elliman. There she experiences beauty, relaxation, and the joyous spirit of the no-longer awkward Fawcett, who is in his element where the others are not, in an eye-opening experience that uncovers a different side of her and leaves her questioning her priorities a fortnight later back at the shop, where everyone has an opinion about her choices, and no one hesitates to express it.
A fine cast of eight delivers the English accents (dialect coaching by Amy Stoller) and personalities of the distinctive characters, all capturing their style and attitudes of the past with individuality and laughs. Sara Haider stars as Rolling, making the transition from her initially serious, determined, workaholic self, who is well-described by Gillatt as having “style and brains,” to a more indulgent and cheerful woman who comes to the realization that she shouldn’t have to forgo love for business, or vice versa; she, and by extension, all women, should be able to have both, just as men can, with the right partner.
In the role of Fawcett, Joshua Echebiri is believably uncomfortable (even startled by the shop mannequin Sally), then increasingly at ease with Kate, as he revels in the joy of the outdoors, the color of the orange dye in which he is investing (wittily referred to as “a dyeing business”), and only doing work that he likes, all visible in his smile and dreamy-eyed distant gaze. His demeanor and casual attire are in direct contrast with those of the natty Gillatt, played with stern conviction by Gene Gillette, who is all about business and finance, and angered when he can’t control Rolling’s growing independence from her shop and the deal he masterminded. Christiane Noll is laughably egotistical and condescending as Lady Smith-Carr-Smith, who becomes equally displeased with Rolling when she begins missing appointments to take some time away from work, refusing to see anyone else (of lower stature) than the owner.
Olivia Gilliatt is a bundle of exuberant energy as the extravagantly dressed and wildly coquettish Maisie, regularly exclaiming “Go on!,” advising Kate not to be a fool by mixing her business with pleasure, and at odds with the elder dressmaker Miss Blagg, well-played by Gina Daniels, who is more supportive of her boss and her desire for a more balanced life. Rounding out the excellent ensemble are Madeline Seidman as the young shop girl Gladys Tracey, who is facing her own romantic troubles while trying to learn her trade, and Tom Patterson in the dual roles of Maisie’s friend Elliman and Tracey’s jealous love interest Jack Webber.
As is always the case with Mint’s historic productions, the compelling story, cast, and direction are supported by an outstanding artistic design. Alexander Woodward’s set captures the well-stocked interior of the Victorian shop, with vintage props by Chris Fields (including an old-fashioned telephone and a vase of flowers that shift from a lavish store-bought bouquet to wildflowers, in keeping with Rolling’s development), and transitions easily to the Downs, with four large rocks before a background landscape adapted from an original painting by James Hart Dyke. Costumes by Kindall Almond are authentic, rich, and varied, indicative of both the styles of the era and the status and tastes of the characters, and lighting by M.L. Geiger and sound by Daniel Baker & Co. further enhance the setting and the narrative.
Mint’s mission of introducing its audiences to neglected plays and playwrights succeeds here with Elizabeth Baker’s Partnership, a thought-provoking work that still resonates today, not just for its female voice but for its recognition that work alone, for both women and men, isn’t as fulfilling as a balanced life that allows time for pleasure and love.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including two intermissions.