“Our Country’s Good” is a big, meaty play, and watching South Coast Repertory’s superb acting company sink its finely sharpened teeth into it is a considerable pleasure. While neither play nor production are faultless, the overall effect is energizing and uplifting–an affirmation that theater can be both an important social force and a lot of fun.
The play is an adaptation by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker of Thomas Keneally’s book “The Playmaker.” Though largely fictional, it centers around an actual historical event: The first production of a play on Australian soil in 1788.
The play was George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer,” the players, a group of British convicts. Wertenbaker takes us from the production’s genesis–the good-hearted, reform-minded captain in charge of the settlement thinks it will help in rehabilitation–through five months of rehearsals, to the backstage nervousness on opening night.
Wertenbaker is at her weakest when she is contriving dramatic confrontations out of this material. Her officers are much too neatly divided into good guys and bad guys, and the strict disciplinarians who despise the idea of staging a play are too cartoonish to be truly threatening.
But she has written many splendid scenes, some of which are almost Shavian in their literate discussion of important subjects. The nature of theater, is for punishment or rehabilitation, are criminals born or made–such matters are debated by the characters with intelligence and wit.
The rehearsal scenes offer pleasures of a different sort, as we watch splendidly awful examples of various kinds of bad acting. But it’s also a joy to watch this group of unlikely thespians come together as an ensemble–and develop some self-esteem.
Wertenbaker is clearly in love with the theater, and she has quite fun playing with its conventions.
This requires a virtuoso company, and fortunately SCR has such a troupe. While a few of the performances border on caricature, most are rich and resonant. The highlights include Hal Landon as a soft-spoken convict who is in love with language and Ron Boussom as a disarmingly enthusiastic but hammy amateur actor.
Gerard Howland’s spare, steeply raked set leaves most of the physical surroundings to our imagination–appropriately for a play about the imaginative power of theater. In a few broad strokes–a corner of an imposing brick building in the center, two huge sails billowing out from either side of the stage–it manages to suggest dislocation and imprisonment.
As as a whole, “Good” is the operative word.