A play ahead of its time

Welcome to the long overdue Chicago debut of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son. Written and originally produced to great acclaim in 1912, this was a play ahead of its time. It initially drew comparisons to dramas by Ibsen and Shaw and was hailed for its powerful exploration of gender, class, and family politics. It’s a play about-and set amidst-a moment of change. Tragically, its progressiveness also became its downfall, driven by a revelation about who exactly wrote the play.

Originally billed as being written by K.G. Sowerby, Rutherford and Son enjoyed tremendous success. However, once it was discovered that the playwright was, in fact, a woman-an almost unheard of occurrence at the time-skepticism rained down on the play and on Githa, causing both to live in relative obscurity for decades.

Francis Guinan as the patriarch Rutherford in TimeLine’s “Rutherford and Son.”

It wasn’t until 1994 that the play once again was given a proper platform at the National Theatre of London, receiving praise and ultimately being recognized as one of the great plays of the 20th century. More recently, a biography of Githa has been published, and revivals of the play in the United Kingdom have become quite common, including two major productions in London and Sheffield within the last year. Yet, here in North America, the play still has received only a handful of productions.

TimeLine is proud to try to undo that injustice, and I believe you’ll find that the play has lost none of its power, bite, or relevance since it premiered 107 years ago. Rather autobiographical and set in an industrial town in Northern England where Githa lived, the play explores the power dynamics within a family business that has been passed on from previous generations. Ruled now by an overbearing patriarch, the Rutherford glass factory is behind the times, suffering from a lack of innovation or technological advancement and facing a wave throughout the country of newly mobilized workers demanding fair wages. At the center of the business and the family is a man out of his league, incapable of empowering any of his children to be a part of a new revolution.

It is those more forward-looking potential heirs who are making tiny cracks in what was a traditional construct. They are challenging oppressive, paternal rule and the predetermined social norms that, in this home, stifle love, prosperity, and the ability for anyone to reach their full potential. Githa’s exploration of family dynamics also can be traced through the bodies of work by playwriting giants whom she pre-dated, such as O’Neill, Hellman, Odets, Hansberry, Miller, and more-all grappling with themes that remain timeless.

She suffered the indignity of not getting to see her play achieve its deserved place among those greats. Somewhere above, I imagine that she is gazing down on Chicago saying “What took you so long?” I’d have to agree, and I’m proud that TimeLine, under the direction of my inspiring colleague Mechelle Moe, is giving Githa and Rutherford and Son their due.

At last.

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Comments (2)

  1. Diane E

    The Set certainly achieved a clear sense of “time and place” I thought the characters were well-carved and parts very well acted. The costumes helped complete the “setting”. Unfortunately, i have sensitive lungs..So, at first, I was taken aback by the fragrance in the air.Happily, I did get accustomed to it…and no asthma attack ensued.
    I would recommend you continue to market this piece as a “play before it’s time”.Seems apt. Also, you might wish to emphasize the theme.of Women’s Liberation in your marketing( Rutherford was a rather overbearing, opinionated type of Father and employer) His children, wife, and his workers must have had a respect for him, but shuddered @ any criticism or rebuke. Yes, This was the time..Rutherford, Sr. did rule with an Iron fist. Unexpected (for me) twist @ the end Nice work!

    • TimeLine Theatre

      Thanks Diane for your comments. Glad to know you enjoyed, and we agree that the theme of women’s liberation is an important one to highlight. We appreciate you coming to see the show!