BWW Reviews: OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD Extols the Virtues of Theater
It should be no surprise that as a lover of theater, I firmly believe in the transitive power of the performing arts. Any production has the power to elicit some emotional response from the audience, but theater often does more. Studies have shown that participating in the performing arts helps students improve their performance in other academic areas. While the impact of the arts in schools is widely known, the use and impact of theater and the arts in prison systems is somewhat less talked about. Nevertheless, theater has been used by penile systems for centuries as a way to rehabilitate prisoners, and that unorthodox idea is at the core of Our Country's Good, now playing at UT-Austin. The infrequently produced Tony nominated play, written by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is a completely engrossing love letter to the virtues of theater and a thrilling depiction of a peculiar moment in Australian history.
Wertenbaker borrows his plot from a true story involving the first colony in Australia. In 1788, a group of British convicts arrived in Australia along with several Royal Marines sent to govern theM. Shortly after, Governor Arthur Phillip suggested that the colony stage a play using the convicts as actors. He believed that the convicts should be rehabilitated rather than harshly punished and thought that if the convicts were to work together on stage, perhaps they'd be reformed. Phillips assigned Lieutenant RalpH Clark to direct a comedy, The Recruiting Officer, and so began the first theatrical production in Australia.
With this small but interesting moment in history as the basis of his story, Wertenbaker creates a gripping drama about redemption, hypocrisy, and theater's ability to make us feel happy and content even in the worst of times. Even in his own play, Wertenbaker makes us laugh through our tears and gives us moments of light to punctuate the dark.
There's certainly a lot going on in Wertenbaker's text. It's a historical drama with moments of comedy and several moments of philosophical discourse on the nature of man, what makes a criminal, the paradox of punishment versus rehabilitation, and the nature of theater. Trying to address all of that must make any director's head spin, but James Daniels handles the piece beautifully. He is more than able to squeeze all of the elements in without anything looking forced or out of place. The varied thoughts and ideas flow one into the next, and they do so at a quick pace.
Daniels's creative team is also in top form. The set by James Ogden, which features cracked red clay soil and broken wood planks, immediately sets up a harsh frontier environment. The decision to decorate the set with barrels and discarded chairs, many of which are occasionally assembled into pieces of furniture, is a clever one that allows for some imaginative scene changes. The dirty, shabby, stained costumes by Mercedes O'Bannion also add to the severe, unforgiving atmosphere. Even the meticulously constructed uniforms worn by the Marines are caked with a layer of red dirt and dust.
As should be expected from UT-Austin, the cast features some of the best young talent in town. As Lieutenant RalpH Clark, Cameron Mellin is winsome, energetic, and enthusiastic, and it's thoroughly entertaining to watch his patience diminish as he works with his inexperienced cast of convicts. Strong though Mellin is, you're more likely to remember several of the supporting players. After all, Wertenbaker gives them the best lines, and many of the supporting actors are outstanding. Megan Rabuse is wonderful as Dabby, a witty, street-smart thief and pimp. Tasha Gorel is able to give a heart and well-concealed sensitivity to her character of Liz, a woman who at first appears to be no more than gruff, dangerous, and rude. As Ketch Freeman, Cody Dale Edgar proves to be the most lovable murderer in the colony, and his moment with Gorel in the second act is a highlight of the evening. And Stephen Mabry is hysterical as the showboating, scene-stealing pickpocket, Robert Sideway.
Our Country's Good may be a little-known drama about a little-known moment in history, but that's one of many reasons why this glorious production demands to be seen. Wertenbaker's moving text is perfectly pared with the talent on stage and behind the scenes. Theater about theater is rarely as good as this.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission.