It’s true what they say — some of the best, most entertaining stories are those experienced firsthand by their creators, as proven by “Sons and Lovers,” the semi-autobiographical novel by English author D.H. Lawrence. Now, “Sons and Lovers” is on the U.S. stage for the first time at the Greenhouse Theater Center.
Adapted and directed by Mike Brayndick, “Sons and Lovers” is a co-production of the Greenhouse Theater and On The Spot Theatre Company. Brayndick’s adaptation was previously commissioned by Traffic of the Stage in Hampstead and toured the U.K. before coming to Chicago for its U.S. premiere on Aug. 29.
In the play, Lawrence (Brian Borell) narrates the story of Paul Morel (Miles Borchard), from his upbringing in a small town to his exploration of the larger world. Set in early 20th century England, the play portrays Paul’s family life, his parents’ rocky marriage, his own love affairs and his relationship with his family.
Lawrence focuses specifically on Paul’s relationship with his mother, Lydia (Amy Gray), who’s a nurturing yet overbearing force in his life. On the other end of the spectrum is his alcoholic father, Walter (Stephen Dunn), who spends more time in the coal mines and bars than at home with his family. Lydia and Walter’s marriage is turbulent, violent and unhappy, setting an example for their two sons of what not to do in a relationship.
Gray brought one of the most notable performances, whose passionate performance captured the essence of a tough-loving mother and tortured wife superbly. Lydia is a headstrong matriarch whose devotion to her children grows with every scene. Opposite Gray was Dunn, playing the deadbeat dad and abusive husband whose deep-rooted emotion and love for his wife and sons only emerged for a brief time whenever tragedy struck.
As they grow up, Paul mostly looks up to his older brother William, who’s also portrayed by Borell. But when William suddenly falls ill and dies, Paul is left alone to take care of his mother and find his path in life.
Paul also finds himself in intimate relationships of his own, torn between Miriam (Corrie Riedl), a local farmer’s daughter, and Clara (Emma Brayndick), whose own marriage is falling apart. While he eagerly explores his sexual and romantic desires, he’s pulled back by his mother’s love and jealousy — though he claims she’s the most important woman in his life, regardless.
Borchard’s portrayal of Paul — the intelligent, witty aspiring painter — is genuine. With sincere emotions and reactions to each situation he finds himself in — from the death of his brother to trying to understand love — Borchard creates a bona fide character for an audience to empathize with.
The production team for this show included Mike Brayndick’s wife Michele on costume design, his daughter Casey as part of the sound design team and his other daughter Emma — who also portrayed Clara — as part of the set design team. The Brayndicks along with the rest of the talented crew put together an excellent, entertaining show.
The set — created by Emma and Pat Henderson — was simple. Half the stage was occupied by the Morel family’s home — a bedroom leading to a kitchen and dining area with a garden placed just in front of the house. The other half was utilized in different ways, from being the neighbor’s home, to the factory Paul worked in, to a forest where Paul and his girlfriend could playfully run through trees.
With all the action happening on stage, there were times the set design felt too cluttered for the small space of the Greenhouse Theater. However, the performers used the space they had well and the set visually enhanced the story.
A handful of scenes featured small musical numbers, mostly consisting of simple vocals from actors including Dunn, Gray and Riedl without overpowering instrumentals. Though short and simple, these scenes further strengthened the raw emotion of the storyline.
“Sons and Lovers” will run through Sept. 29 at the Greenhouse Theater (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.). Discounted tickets are available for students for $25 and can be purchased at www.greenhousetheater.org, at the box office or by calling 773-404-7336.