There are certain plays that I consider to be safe bets for good college productions, and “Our Country’s Good” is high on that list. It’s got a lot for young actors to sink their teeth into. These days that includes topics that happen to be staples of today’s news headlines.
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s historical drama, which premiered in 1990 at Hartford Stage (in a Mark Lamos production that transferred to Broadway in ’91), is ideal for the sort of ensembles that naturally form among college classmates. It also is a play about the act of putting on a play, ideal for theater students who aren’t afraid to mock the mechanics of the artform. The plot concerns a group of British convicts who are encouraged by an ambitious lieutenant to stage an amateur production of the George Farquhar comedy “The Recruiting Officer” at their Australian penal colony.
The play, set in 1789, is based on a real-life event. Wertenbaker uses the situation as an opportunity to comment on race, gender inequality, social status and antiquated theories about crime and punishment. The play chronicles systematic abuses against women. It debates civil liberties and questions legal and military authorities. It stands against abuses of power. It also uses the “Recruiting Officer” rehearsals as a way to demonstrate how people can work together to make themselves heard and understood.
“Our Country’s Good” is right up there with Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade,” Athol Fugard’s “The Island” and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 - 1915” in the vibrant sub-genre of plays that use other plays to explore political and social issues.
“Our Country’s Good” provides a workout for its young actors, who rise to the challenge. (Five of the cast appeared earlier this fall in CT Rep’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” so their versatility is already apparent.) “Our Country’s Good” requires most of its dozen performers to play more than one role. The main point of this is the revelation of how little it takes for a person previously perceived as a convict to suddenly be seen as a judge or military commander, simply by putting on a white wig or a nice coat. There is also some cross-gender casting.
Directed by UConn Artistic Director of Dramatic Arts Michael Bradford, this “Our Country’s Good” features two professional actors in the cast — Nigerian/English actor Ademide Akintilo and UConn alum James Jelkin. But it’s the students who drive the show, especially the five female cast members. Wertenbaker has written exceptional roles for women, rising above stereotypical depictions of prostitutes and subservient girlfriends and giving these women strong voices and emotions. Braley Degenhardt is a stand-out as Liz Morden, a convicted thief who’s keeping secrets that could help her case because, despite her belligerence and bravado, she’s lost all faith in the legal system. Coleman Churchill is convincingly brash as both a captain and a convict. Tabatha Gayle and Gillian Rae Pardi — the Gwendolyn and Cecily of that CT Rep “Earnest” in October — again make a fine team, bantering and strategizing as the shy Mary Brenham and her more forthright friend Dabby Bryant.
Director Bradford takes the artifice of the play-within-a-play and multiple-role concept and extends them to the show’s staging and design. The stage is bare, with a large tree and projections as a backdrop. The convicts’ clothing is unstained and untorn, their hair unmussed. The shared youthfulness and attractiveness of the performers keeps this production from making any strong points about generational attitudes or ageism. There is a tidy decorum to the whole show. The lack of a more realistic environment makes the many scenes of moaning, fighting and beating less intense. It’s the verbal expressions of pain and suffering that succeed. Clearly spoken and cleanly staged, with the ensemble working well together, the play’s off-putting two-hour-and-forty-five-minute running time sails by as if it were an hour shorter.
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Michael Bradford, runs through Dec. 10 at the Nafe Katter Theatre, 802 Bolton Road, on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $33. 860-486-2113 and crt.uconn.edu.