BWW Reviews: OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD Celebrates the Power of Theatre
Clarence Brown Theatre has staged Our Country's Good in the Carousel theatre on the campus of the University of Tennessee. Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker is based on the early colonization of Australia by the British. Set in 1788-89, Our Country's Good isn't a beautiful play, but neither was the colonization of Australia. This production, directed by Calvin McLean, is dark, but extremely eye opening and beautifully performed.
Our Country's Good focuses on the prison colony in Sydney, run by the British. A ship of convicts, some convicted of serious crimes, others of more minor infractions, were sent to Australia and we come in very early in the settlement and begin to meet both the British soldiers who run the colony and the convicts that inhabit the colony.
Captain Aurthur Phillips, played by Neil Friedman, has been chosen as governor of the new colony. There are many things happening in the colony that are considered less than pleasant. Supplies are low, rations are in effect, and the convicts have been stealing rations and running away. Many of the women in the women's camp are selling themselves for extra rations and favors to the soldiers.
Captain Phillips comes up with the idea of a play to be put on by the prisoners, to keep them entertained and busy. Many of the officers are opposed to this, stating the convicts have no ability to learn or change and that their favorite form of entertainment is watching a hanging. Captain Phillips seems to think there is some redemption left for the convicts and presses forward.
Lieutenant Clark, played by Cory O'Brien-Pniewski, jumps at the opportunity to direct the play, and begins the task of finding women and men to fill the roles. Some can read, many cannot. Most are wild and have behaviors more connected to animals than human, with constant fighting, distractions, and trouble. Over time begin to see relationships form and to understand exisiting relationships. Midshipman Harry Brewer, played by StuArt Matthews, longs for the love of a convict known at Duckling. Duckling, played by Angela Graham, resides with Harry, but is detatched and often angry at him. Harry is a jealous man and keeps a close eye on Duckling at all times. Due to her anger at him, he offers to let her join the play as a gesture of good will. She agrees to join. Still, she only shows her love for him after his untimely death late in the play.
Lieutenant Clark has avoided relations with the women of the camp, even when his fellow officers have not. He has a strong love for his wife, left behind in England. We do see an immediate connection between Lieutenant Clark and convict Mary Brenham, played by Cynthia Anne Roser, almost immediately. When she comes to read for a part in the play, Lieutenant Clark gives her the lead after only a few lines. Mary Brenham falls in love with Lieutenant Clark and eventually, he approaches her to move in with him.
Many months later, through trials, illnesses, trouble, and a host of other problems, the play is able to be performed. We've seen each of the characters change. The convicts have gone from wild and unruly, to being able to behave in a civilizEd Manner, if only to perform the show. In particular, convict Liz Morden played by Jess Milewicz, has changed drastically. When we meet her, she is more apt to fight than be a friend and more likely to cause trouble than be able to perform in a play. She has the most drastic of changes, after being accused of stealing rations during the show's rehearsal process, she refuses to speak up for herself and is condemned to hang. She finally speaks up at nearly the last moment. This is when we realize that she has become a different person and she feels like she has something to live for, instead of taking a punishment that wasn't hers to take.
Our Country's Good is a dark, multi-layered show that deals with subjects that many people would like to ignore. Prostitution, thievery, adultery, prison, punishment of convicts. But it also touches on the redemption of those thought too far gone to save. While many may have given up on these convicts, theatre gave them the chance to have their redemption and to become something that they could be, instead of what they were.
Beautifully staged, with lighting by Kristen Geisler, and scenic design by Josafeth Israel Reynoso Calvillo, the audience is transported back in time to become a part of something that has both good and bad, dark and light, conviction and redemption. To imagine that you can experience all of that in the span of about three hours is a feat in itself, but the Clarence Brown Theatre manages to pull it off with little trouble.