'Our Country's Good' ably demonstrates the humanizing value of art

March 18, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

In the late 1780s, the British officer in charge of the penal colony in Sydney, Australia, decided to have the convicts stage a play in hopes that, unlike a public hanging, it might prove a beneficial example to the participants as well as the spectators.

At least that's how the story is told in Timberlake Wertenbaker's play "Our Country's Good," based on Thomas Keneally's historical novel, "The Playmaker."

Winner of the 1988 Olivier Award (the British Tony), "Our Country's Good" is receiving its Baltimore premiere at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, and though the script has didactic patches, it makes a strong case for the humanizing properties of the arts. It also draws intriguing parallels between prisoners and those who imprison them.

These parallels are emphasized by the use of double casting, which is suggested in the script although the exact application is left up to the director. Under Richard Jackson's direction at Fell's Point Corner, many of the same actors play convicts and their captors. And then, of course, there's also a good deal of triple casting since most of the convicts have roles in the play-within-a-play -- George Farquhar's late Restoration comedy, "The Recruiting Officer."

All of this is highly demanding, and not all of the actors are up to the task. Convict Liz Morden is described as "one of the most difficult women in the colony," but Claudia Berman's Liz seems no nastier than the others, which dims the effect of casting her as a lady in Farquhar's play. In fact, far from being fierce, when she relates the tale of Liz's troubled youth, Berman speaks in such soft and heavily accented tones that her words are barely discernible.

As an example of the effectiveness of multiple casting, Gloria Henderson's bawdy depiction of a female prisoner offers an ironic comment on her brief but prim portrayal of the colony's chaplain.

In addition, several actors successfully convey the changes in attitude wrought by their exposure to theater. As convict Duckling Smith, Christine Nelson is initially defiant, but when her heart is opened, it reveals a gentle temperament. In contrast, as "The Recruiting Officer's" director, David Minges' repressed Lieutenant Clark falls under the romantic sway of Farquhar's script and loosens his tight morals.

As a convicted pickpocket with pretensions to gentility, Tim Munn provides welcome comic relief, as does Mike Moran as a prisoner who reluctantly chose serving as hangman over being hanged.

The play's sweetest scene is a brief exchange between the only two literate prisoners, played by Jeanine DeFalco Horowitz and Mark Christian. At the opposite emotional extreme, Chip Meister movingly portrays the descent into madness of a midshipman wracked with guilt over his role in the executions of convicts he knew were not much different from himself.

And, as Captain Phillip, the proponent of culture, Bob Bardoff brings quiet conviction to his portrayal of an enlightened officer who believes in the redemptive power of art.

In the end, "Our Country's Good" is a lovely example of a play that does what it is about -- it is proof of the uplifting qualities of theater. And, despite its unevenness, Fell's Point Corner's production is a further affirmation of those qualities.

Finally, because of this theme, "Our Country's Good" was a particularly appropriate play for last Sunday's audience of government and community leaders, who were invited in hopes of encouraging support for a $125,000 state bond matching grant to help with ongoing renovations that include a second, fully accessible theater space.

"Our Country's Good"

Where: Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays except April 3, 7 p.m. Through April 17

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 276-7837

** 1/2

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