One of the difficulties of staging plays in an college-level acting program like UC-CCM is making sure that the students are getting a chance to learn their craft . . .which requires scripts with many characters. And regardless of the age of the character, it’s likely going to be a college-aged actor playing the part. So, this reduces the number of scripts that are considered I’m certain. I’m sure that is at least part of the reason why a script like Timberlake Wertenbaker’s OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD was chosen to be part of the 2018-2019 Mainstage Season. It’s also probably because it’s a multi-award winning play and is used across Europe as a training tool in Theatre Education and English Studies. That said, I’m not one to celebrate something just because everyone else thinks its good. This script is not my cup of British tea. (Pun intended. But a stretch, I know. Just move on.)
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD is set in Australia just after the Revolutionary War. Some of the British military leaders are quite surly and are taking it out on the prisoners who’ve been sent to colonize the small continent. However, a benevolent governor and kind Second Lieutenant seek to find redemption for these convicts through the staging of a play.
Don’t get me wrong – the message and theme of the production is as timely now as it was when it was written in 1988. The way we treat people who break the law is not effective and borderline inhumane, only reinforcing the traumas that likely caused them to offend to begin with. Trust me, I get it. As a counselor, the effect of trauma on the psyche of a child is painfully severe and long-lasting.
There are clever moments, winks to the craft of acting, and some symbolic double casting (which director Susan Felder uses masterfully to emphasize the points of the play). The scene transitions on designer Josh Gallagher’s set are quick, with great use of the technical aspects of which CCM excels. Ashley Trujillo’s costumes are striking – both with the luxurious soldier’s red coats and the prisoner’s filthy rags. Sam Kittle’s wigs and makeup add to the sense of time and place while Michael Ekema-Nardella keeps things as minimal as possible with smart lighting choices. Zachory Ivans sound design features mostly classical strings as background between scenes. All of the above are CCM students, with bright futures ahead.
However, there are some problems with the production. The language is difficult (and unfortunately almost a third of the dialogue was inaudible or unintelligible to me as actors rushed, belabored by the need for thick accents and wordy passages) to try to take this massive script down to a manageable run time. And it still ended about 2 hours and 47 minutes after it started. D’Arcy Smith and Katherine Webster, dialect coaches, assisted the actors in finding some authentic tones – but sometimes authenticity makes things harder to understand. Also, there are some staging choices that require the actors to turn the back to the audience while speaking making their voices that much harder to understand.
Minor quibbles aside, Felder brings out the best in her cast. Excellent performances include Jack Steiner as the moral center of the play as Ralph Clark. He is grounded and never flashy. Madeline Page-Schmit’s demure “Mary,” Jacqueline Daaleman’s bossy “Dabby,” and Abby Palen’s vociferous “Liz.” Remember that creative double casting I mentioned earlier? Chandler Bates plays both a bawdy aging prostitute and a past-his-prime reverend. Both are quite funny. Jabari Carter is both an Aborigine and the ruling leader of the island. His expressions as both characters demonstrate his intelligent acting style. James Egbert plays both “Campbell” and “Harry Brewer. He disappears into the role of Harry so much that I had to look at the program twice to realize that it was him. Cameron Nalley is both sweet as the reluctant hangman, “James Ketch,” and the sneering villain, “Ross.” Carter LaCava provides physical comic relief with his expressive style. I also found Duncan Weinland’s sincere portrayal of “Wisehammer” consistent throughout the play. There were no bad performances and the rest of the cast (Kayla Temshiv, Carlee Coulehan, Olivia Buss, Trey Peterson, Lucas Prizant, and Graham Rogers) all pull their weight.
While not my favorite production this year, OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD serves its purpose. It provides the brilliant CCM acting students a chance to learn on stage, explores heavy thematic material, and causes the audience to think about a social problem in a new way.
That’s never a bad way to spend three hours.
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD continues this weekend at UC-CCM. Get tickets for the remaining performances here.