The setting is simple. The plot is straightforward. A coal-mining village. A dreary, early 20th century Yorkshire house. Frumpy, frustrated Mrs. Holroyd. Dinner and laundry. Two precocious children. Friendly neighbor Mr. Blackmore. An insensitive, perpetually soused husband. Two drunken harlots from the pub. During the first two acts, it seems as if only phrases are being communicated. Fortunately, the evolution in the third, and final, act forms complete sentences; it adds a layer of complexity and psychological depth that leads toward an open-ended understanding of domesticity and anxiety.
The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd was the first play by salacious author D.H. Lawrence, so it must be an extremely psychosexual version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, right? Not so. When framed within Lawrence’s oeuvre, The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd is disappointingly prudish, but does not misstep in its directness to tell the narrative of a rickety marriage — and show how marital conventions and societal norms suffocate, and ultimately cripple, a woman’s decision-making process.
The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd’s economy is not its downfall, but what makes it convincing. Although occasionally over-postured, the cast is in tune with character interaction; the histories of relationships are established within the first moments of each encounter. When Mrs. Holroyd enters her house at the beginning of the play, her exhausted connection to the musky rat-trap is apparent. When Mr. Blackmore appears, with his goofy grin and perfectly greased comb-over, it doesn’t take long to figure out the massive crush he has on poor, harried Mrs. Holroyd. When Mr. Holroyd stumbles in with two trashy trollops in paper bonnets, it’s evident that this is nothing new (sidenote: the play includes an extensive index of the best antiquated euphemisms for “drunk slut,” all delivered with fervor). From the moment Randy Danson waddles onto the stage, bearing the fatigued limp of a weary old mother, it’s clear that his beaten-down banter with Mrs. Holroyd will be the highlight, and savior, of the play.
Stuart Howard assuredly veers clear of heavy-handed territory, yet refuses to inspire much additional life into the been-there-done-that feel. The writing is refreshingly terse, yet still plagued by the usual stiff language that infiltrates domestic conflict narratives (“You’re tied to a life you don’t like” and “I’ve tried hard to make this marriage work — if only for the children’s sake”) and the obvious choice between brutish husband and benevolent bachelor. Women still face pressures within marriage, yet Lawrence’s play — most likely considered modern for its time, the early 1910s — does not have the vitality to breathe much relevance into its archaic plot. That’s not to say it’s very creaky; the third act — well, um, you’ve read the title, correct? — addresses a peculiar conflict in character. A woman who once felt immobilized by her inability to be free must confront her spontaneously planned mobility and ability to be free. This squashes the awakening of personal power she previously felt, as she proclaimed: “I’ll do whatever the deuce I like.” Unexpected circumstances keep Mrs. Holroyd from the brilliant ending she wants, and it’s difficult not to feel that Lawrence’s integrity was also kept back due to the conditions of his time.