It takes more than a village to raise a child. Sometimes it takes a person like Kate Burton’s Miss Moffat, a single-minded woman on a mission who is as dazzling as she is dedicated. She’s determined (of course), resourceful (naturally) and thoroughly engaging in Nicholas Martin’s always pleasurable, often moving and sometimes inspired revival for Williamstown Theater Festival of Emlyn Williams’ love letter to his teacher, “The Corn is Green.”
Burton and Martin, who previously teamed for the Williamstown-to-Broadway “Hedda Gabler,” know that crust and pluck aren’t enough to turn around a village of the skeptical, the disengaged and the forgotten. And Miss Moffat surely wouldn’t so quickly (as the plot requires) enlist a pair of local allies if she were merely a bossy, know-it-all do-gooder.
A solicitor’s clerk (Rod MacLauchlan) and a frivolous-though-educated woman (Kathy McCafferty) are soon taken by the disarming Moffat and her unbridled vitality; she sizes up their disappointing lives not in a hurtful way but rather as a reality check with charm. When it comes to winning over a pompous squire (Dylan Baker who finds myriad laughs in obtuseness and obstinacy), she grits her teeth, demurely smiles and — shakily — curtsies.
“She’s a clinker, that’s what,” says Moffat’s seen-it-all servant, Mrs. Watty (Becky Ann Baker, in another artfully measured comic perf). Whether it’s truth-telling, flattery or bribery, Miss Moffat does whatever it takes to get one step closer to her goal of educating the village poor — and especially one lad, Morgan Evans (Morgan Ritchie), who shows promise of greatness.
Giving the production special resonance is not only the fact that Ritchie is the son of Burton (and Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group exec Michael Ritchie — the former producing director at Williamstown). But Williams’ autobiographical tale of a teacher helping lift a poverty-stricken lad out of a coal-mining village also mirrors the story of Burton’s own father, the late Richard Burton, who escaped his dead-end Welsh hamlet through a similarly devoted mentor.
But sentimentality is not the currency of this production, or even this play, which is sharper than our nostalgic memory recalls. Amid the melodrama, laughs and the uplift, Williams exposes class prejudice, child exploitation, religious hypocrisy and imperial neglect, points all landed straight-faced and foursquare in Martin’s staging.
The production has a supporting cast of considerable depth, not least of which is Ginnifer Goodwin (TV’s “Big Love”) as Bessie Watty, the saucy, selfish daughter of Moffat’s maid, who complicates Morgan’s efforts to get a scholarship to Oxford. Goodwin is wickedly good as the ripe Cockney tart and great fun to watch.
Ritchie, a relative acting newbie (he doesn’t yet have his Equity card) gives the role of a lad of raw talent a sweet naturalness, tapping into the character’s shyness, cleverness and boyhood bravado. While his range is still limited, Ritchie shows real promise, with an open, truthful perf that solidly hits all the primary notes.
Still, the play and production belong to Burton’s Moffat, a perfect fit for an actress known for her intelligence, warmth and avoidance of easy sentimentality. Her perf is a fine tribute to the story well-known and well-told, where emotions often lie in what is unspoken, and the noble, unselfish act is its own reward — regardless of the results of that action.