Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Feb. 22
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In his program notes for Shattered Globe Theatre’s commendable production of “Our Country’s Good,” director Roger Smart calls Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 Olivier award-winning play, adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, a “contemporary classic.” He’s right.
The British playwright cleverly uses an historical event — the founding of the Sydney, Australia penal colony in 1788-1789 — to explore issues that remain relevant today. Is the purpose of imprisonment to punish or to reform? Which deters crime better, fear or kindness? Do the arts, especially theater, have the power to elevate even the most lowly among us? What role does language have in how we define ourselves and others? What are the effects of colonization on the home country, the colonists and the local population (here represented by a lone aboriginal Australian)?
At the same time, she crafts a boatload of characters who are interesting enough to hold our attention and a few we can really care about. They range from the pickpockets, prostitutes and other petty criminals transported from England to the soldiers and enlisted men charged with overseeing their incarceration. They also represent various points of view, from the humanism of Captain Arthur Phillip (Drew Schad), governor of the colony, to the brutality of Major Robbie Ross (Ben Werling), who metes out whippings and hangings with abandon. And the convicts include many types, among them incredibly shy Mary Brenham (Abbey Smith), her outspoken friend Dabby Bryant (Christina Gorman), angry and unrepentant Liz Morden (Eileen Niccolai), reluctant hangman Ketch Freeman (Addison Helmann) and language-loving John Wisehammer, an outsider among outsiders because he’s Jewish.
Wertenbaker’s real coup, though, is her theatricality. In a canny use of doubling, all but three of the actors play multiple roles. Men and women alike portray both soldiers and convicts, and some of the pairings have a pointed thematic purpose. Werling, for example, not only is the cruel Major Ross, he’s also John Arscott, one of his most unfortunate victims. Schad is both Captain Phillip and Midshipman Harry Brewer, who suffers terrible guilt and sees ghosts of those whose hanging he ordered. To stress the mulilayered implications, all the costume changes are done on stage, with the performers pulling coats, wigs and such for crate-like trunks on Smart’s spare but evocative set, which features a palm tree wrapped in rope and shrubs resembling a cat o’ nine tails.
Not co-incidentally, the main plot revolves around a play within a play. At the urging of Brewer, 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Stephen Peebles) petitions the governor to allow the prisoners put on a play, George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy, “The Recruiting Officer,” to test its civilizing potential and provide entertainment. Initially, he just wants to further his own career and find a distraction from pining away for his beloved wife back home, but he soon becomes passionate about the project.
Clark’s transformation, as he embraces his new life and falls in love with his leading lady, Mary, is carefully and sympathetically charted by Peebles, and Smith gently shows Mary emerging from her shell and becoming bolder like her Farquhar character. Liz Morten, assigned the role of her antithesis, an aristocratic lady, also changes — as does almost everyone else.
Most of the drama is about how they get to opening night (of a one-night engagement), and it’s fraught with the convicts squabbling over their roles, Major Ross’s endless disruptive efforts, attempted escapes, scheduled hangings and other potential disasters. Some of the complications are comic; some are cruel, even tragic. Director Smart and his ensemble generally do a good job of keeping them in balance, though some of the actors are more accomplished than others.
In many ways, “Our Country’s Good” adheres to the old “lets put on a show” formula — but also transcends it. Wertenbaker’s play is so intelligent — even if she stacks the deck in the debates — and her characters are so engaging that when they work together in the end, we can’t help but root for their success in the New World.