By: Isa Goldberg
March 9, 2023: Consummate craftmanship distinguishes The Mint Theatre’s world premiere of Betty Smith’s 1931 drama, “Becomes a Woman”. Set in that period, around The Great Depression, the characters – hard working store clerks, and their customers at Kress Dime Store, don striking couture. Sophisticated dress was a sign of the time.
Opening on the store’s most prominent draw, the audience watches Francie Nolan, played by (Emma Pfitzer Price) singing popular songs of the era. Francie is also the central character in Smith’s signature work, “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”. Both Francies are products of their impoverished, Irish immigrant upbringing. The Francie we meet in this earlier work by Smith is treated to life’s brutal lessons, but courageously rises above it all, and flourishes because of it.
In addition to Francie, the store sells sheet music, lots of fake flowers, bobbly Chinese lanterns, and kaleidoscopes – all suggesting a world of brilliant colors and sounds. (Set design by Vicki R. Davis.) In contrast to the visuals, the emotional environment is dark. The three lady clerks at the dime store share disparaging stories, and circumstances.
As directed here by Britt Berke, the production is grounded in realism, and there is a copious attention to detail. It brings to mind the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser. And to the extent that Francie struggles to come into herself, and possess her power as a woman, she achieves the self-awareness for which Dreiser’s characters noticeably strive.
As Francie’s cohorts at Kress, Florry played by Pearl Rhein speaks in Brooklynese. And Terri, a perky Gina Daniels brings such positive energy throughout that it’s a pleasure when she’s on stage.
Among the customers, Jason O’Connell’s Max the ambulance driver is as good as gold, with a radiant presence. His scenes with Terri bring the kind of energy that is otherwise absent in the banality of everyday life as it’s explored here.
Fortunately, a colorful cast of characters moves the action along. Peterson Townsend portrays Leonard Kress Jr., Francie’s boss and boyfriend. It’s an interesting use of colorblind casting, as it would be unlikely that the Dime Store chain was owned by a black family at that time. In a contemporary way, it plays with our sense of what is innate to our culture. Immigrants are the foundation of our country, including those who came here as slaves.
In the later acts we meet Francie’s family – most importantly her father, a cop who rules with an iron fist, and the ethics of a mob boss. As portrayed by Jeb Brown, Pa Nolan is a beast with little need for civility.
On the other hand, when Francie’s wealthy father-in-law Leonard Kress Sr., portrayed with enormous aplomb by Duane Boutte, tries to charm her with his influence, she remains unmoved. His offers of a safe haven, and a happy ending for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter don’t cut the mustard with Francie, whose new found self-awareness inspires her to take a stand.
In the background, Francie’s mother (Antoinette LaVecchia) looks like a stereotype of a mid-twentieth century television maid, with a braid wrapped around her head, and wearing an apron. But sadly, Ma Nolan is anything but spunky.
Running approximately 2 ½ hours, the production feels like a pot boiler set to simmer. But unlike a pot boiler where the outcome strictly caters to popular tastes, Smith’s play gives us an outcome that is well worth the wait. Francie’s rise to shero stature breaks through the play’s stogy realism.
Indeed, Smith’s evocation of the hardships of immigrants, poverty, the dangers of urban life, and the emptiness of material success remain provocative to us today.
Becomes A Woman ****
Mint Theater Company
New York City Center Stage 11
131 W 55th St New York 10019
For Tickets Click Here
February 7th through March 18th
Photography: Todd Cerveris