The Winslow Boy | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

As in the Edwardian period drama, the age-old conflict of the individual against the system still impacts modern audiences.



 

Man vs. State is a timeless conflict, but in Terrence Rattigan’s play The Winslow Boy, it conveys a timely message. Inspired by true events, the drama follows a family’s struggle to restore justice to their son in a legal battle as important in 19th-century England as in modern-day America. Director Steven Woolf transports a human issue set in a past era from across the ocean to The Repertory Theatre, where he connects it to an audience that recently experienced its own judicial controversy.

The Winslow Boy takes place in England on the cusp of WW1. Political tensions set the backdrop of this family drama, which follows the upper-middle-class Winslows of South Kensington, London as they struggle to restore honor to their name.

The conflict unfolds when Arthur Winslow (Jeff Hayenga) learns Osborn Royal Naval College has expelled his 13-year-old son, Ronnie (Jay Stalder), for stealing a five-shilling postal order. Ronnie claims innocence, and Arthur vows to clear his name, but his attempt to take the Admiralty to trial is rebuked—at the time, a citizen could not sue the British government without their consent. Desperate for representation, Arthur invests in an expensive lawyer, the renowned barrister Sir Robert Morton (Jay Stratton), and they successfully apply for a petition of right—the only option for a citizen to sue the crown. They receive the attorney general’s formulaic response: “Let right be done,” as clearance to proceed. These words come to define the play’s thematic question: Are justice and right the same?

Despite its focus on English law, this courtroom drama never leaves the Winslows’ parlor room. The opposite of a stagnant set, however, the setting concentrates on the Winslow’s lives and how they are effected by the court, rather than on the events conducted by the elite. News from the case and of the eminent war enter the room via newspapers and word of mouth. Though the climax of the play happens off set, the maid, Violet (Peggy Billo), recounts the victory to the family with such energy and humor that her performance makes up for the lack of visuals.  

Scenic Designer John Enzell’s attention to detail, from the room’s neo-classical design to the working gramophone and candlestick telephone props, help establish the parlor as a central point in the Winslows’ lives. Though the room remains relatively the same throughout the play, minor details reflect changes in the Winslows’ lives. Nautical paintings and other minor décor that had initially established their financial good standing disappear after the second act, as if they were sold to pay the growing debts inflicted by the case.

Each family member sacrifices something for the case. Ronnie transfers to a less-prestigious school, his older brother Dickie (Hunter Canning) drops out of Oxford to find work, and the oldest sibling, suffragette Catharine (Kathleen Wise), makes a difficult choice between continuing the case or her engagement to John Watherstone (William Connell). Even more touching than Catherine’s sacrifice for her family is her father’s reaction to her ending the engagement and declining the subsequent offer of marriage from family friend Desmond Curry (Michael James Reed). Rather than insist she marry to save herself from financial ruin, he promises to leave her and her mother Grace (Carol Schultz) the house, and stresses she marry for love—a clear approval of her suffragette convictions.

The actors captured their character’s personalities and mannerisms down to the British accents. Though Violet accidentally knocked her serving tray against the doorframe, the actress’s grasp of her character was strong enough for me to wonder whether the mistake had been a conscious demonstration of the maid’s old age. While Canning spoke too fast and jumbled the lines a couple times in an attempt to convey Dickie’s boisterous voice, his overall performance fully- captured him. The characters were well-developed, and frequent laughter from the audience often accompanied their interactions.

The Winslows’ fierce loyalty to each other against the scrutiny of the public and the law define this play as more than a melodramatic court case, but a powerful portrait of an average family struggling to be heard during a time of deafening forces—a portrait that continues to represent common struggles today. 

A few months before The Winslow Boy premiered, St. Louis saw its own “Winslow case,” in which the murder of a young, unarmed black man by a white cop went up for judicial review—the case of the Michael Brown family. As in the Edwardian period drama, the age-old conflict of the individual against the system still impacts modern audiences.

In the ending scene, when Sir Robert Morton states the famous line, “It’s not hard to do justice; it’s hard to do right,” an audible response rippled through the crowd. The words had resonated with St. Louis. | Alexandria Lenzi

The Winslow Boy runs at The Rep through March 8. For ticket information, visit http://www.repstl.org/.

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