Of all the old war horses of the American theater, few have
been more durable than “The Drunkard,” W. H. Smith’s cautionary tale on
the evils of John Barleycorn. The original 1844 staging in Boston was
for a temperance crusade and was deadly serious; a 1933 production in
Los Angeles was played strictly for laughs and ran more than 20 years.
An engaging revival by the Metropolitan Playhouse falls somewhere in
between and makes a good case for the piece’s being more than a quaint
What might make the play
interesting for a 21st-century audience is its recognition factor.
Every family seems to have at least one drunk — an uncle or aunt,
father or mother, brother or sister whose alcoholism is the source of
both amusement and anguish to friends and relatives.
“The Drunkard” is, of
course, pure melodrama, but the director, Francis X. Kuhn, avoids any
of the mustache-twirling histrionics that usually accompany it,
although the temptations must be great for actors and director alike.
Smith, the Welsh-born son of a British Army officer, knew American
audiences of his time, and the text often invites hisses, especially
for the nefarious Squire Cribbs.
It is Cribbs who leads the
good-hearted Edward Middleton to ruination through drink as an act of
revenge for Middleton’s marrying young Mary Wilson and saving her and
her widowed mother from losing their home. Because it is a melodrama,
all ends happily, of course, with Middleton’s rescue from Skid Row by a
wealthy philanthropist who is a sort of 19th-century Bill W. and Dr.
Bob all rolled into one.
The production opens with
the cast singing a couple of temperance hymns, and the narrative is
punctuated throughout with songs, dances and even a couple of barroom
brawls, which keep things lively.
Some commendable performances among the 13 actors help
maintain the play’s credibility. Howard Thoresen ably handles the
Squire’s villainy with a sly smile rather than a sneer. Michael Hardart
is convincing as Middleton, both drunk and sober, and Leigh Shannan is
touching as his long-suffering wife. Ben Gougeon is especially good as
William Dowton, Middleton’s foster brother and guardian angel.
Charlotte Hampden is aptly ditsy as Miss Spindle, a spinster who
provides comic relief as a 19th-century Mrs. Malaprop, and Cyrus Newitt
ably plays a variety of roles, from barkeep to Middleton’s savior.