By Tulis McCall

OK. Fine.  I never read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”  Sue me.  Or at least blame it on my English teachers who never assigned it.

Here is why I am going to read it – Betty Smith is a brave writer.  In this play from 1930 she covers relationship elements without cuting anything up: spousal abuse, sex, illegitimate pregnancy, sex discrimination – and more.  Francis Nolan (Emma Pfitzer Price) is a 19-year old working in a 5 and dime store as a singer.  It was the days of pianos in the parlor and people gathering to sing together.  The radio was a new invention and the shows that would steal people away from pianos to the chairs around the radio were not in full swing.  Today we would say that Francie was a victim of parental abuse, but 90 years ago there was no such thing.  Francie gives her entire paycheck to her parents, and when she expresses a desire to move out on her own, her father threatens her.

What Francie wants is that knight in shining armor.  Someone who will treat her well, take care of her, and be both a good father as well as a good husband.  She wold prefer him to be delivered to her front door rather than having to endure being hit on by the low life’s in the neighborhood.  Because she is a single working girl in a shop – this will never happen.  As her co-worker Florry (Pearl Rheim) tells her:  “A girl has to really like a man before she gets intimate with him, but a man has to get really intimate with a girl before he likes her. Anybody will tell you that.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the entire story.

Francie sticks to her principles until that special fella IS delivered to her in the form of the boss’s son, Leonard Kress, Jr. (Peterson Townsend).  She falls for him and next thing you know is a fallen woman.  In 1930 if you please.

Smith lets Francie land on her feet thanks to her other co-worker Tessie (Gina Daniels) and her beau Max (Jason O’Connell) who is exactly the kind of guy Francie should have fallen for.

The first two acts of this play drag, and could easily have been edited down (although this may not be part of the Mint’s mission in resurrecting old plays) and the direction could have used a touch of zip.  The 5 and dime store itself has little going for it.  There are flowers and there is the music – and that’s it.  I am old enough to remember these stores, and they were chock-a-block full of everything you could think of.  Due to the lack of inventory there is not a lot for these women to do, and the direction does not help.  Ditto for the next scene at Francie’s home where everyone plays one note and no one seems to be listening to anyone else.

The third and final scene is infinitely better, although still wordy.  We see Francie, now a mother, having grown a backbone and ready to negotiate with anyone who crosses her path.  Having chosen to to marry Mr. Townsend to keep her baby safe, she is now aware of the financial benefits that should come her way.  She has a daughter to protect.  The time for timidity has passed.

The dialogue in this act is frighteningly contemporary, with the Kress men, father and son, operating in unison to convince her to stick around so that an inheritance may be released and benefit everyone.

Except Francie, that is.

Smith knew 90 years ago that one should not mess with a woman whose mind has been made up. In the middle of the Depression, with nothing to her name and only her brain and daring to guide her, Francie becomes not only a woman but a fierce lioness.

The entire production misses the mark for which it was aiming, but it will introduce every audience to a writer worthy of a second look.  That’s something.

Becomes A Woman by Betty Smith, Directed by Britte Burke

WITH Duane Boutté, Christopher Reed Brown, Jeb Brown, Gina Daniels, Antoinette Lavecchia, Jack Mastrianni, Jason O’Connell, Emma Pfitzer Price, Scott Redmond, Pearl Rhein, Madeline Seidman, Phillip Taratula, Peterson Townsend and Tim Webb

The creative team includes Vicki R. Davis (scenic), Emilee McVey-Lee (costumes), Mary Louise Geiger(lighting), M. Florian Staab (sound), Amy Stoller (dialects and dramaturgy)

Through March 18, at New York City Center.  TICKETS