Chicago Theatre Review
Redemption through Theatre
Our Country’s Good – Shattered Globe
It’s been argued that theatre can be a humanizing force, for the audience but especially for its participants. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1990 play, based on Australian Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, depicts the origins of Western civilization in Australia. During the 1780’s England began deporting its criminals, accompanied by a crew of Royal Marines, to a newly established penal colony in far off Sidney Bay, Australia. Ms. Wertenbaker’s play, inspired by journal accounts by the actual officers on this voyage, tells how Royal Governor Arthur Phillip appointed 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark to stage a play using some of the convicts, with the hopes that such an experience would civilize and rehabilitate these crude, violent men and women.
Twenty-two characters from all walks of life are portrayed by only thirteen actors in this production. Together they bring life to this little-known chapter in history and provide a thought-provoking look at 18th century English class differentiation, the judicial system, the effects of severe retribution versus a more caring rejuvenation, theatre, sexuality, mental health, religion and much more. Interspersed with scenes of unthinkable torture and humiliation are scenes filled with warmth and comedy. However, what audiences will take from this production, besides the memory of some incredible, unforgettable characters, is how kindness and respect trumps roughness. It also shows how the communal experience of working together for a common good brings results.
Roger Smart’s production is intelligent, sensitive and filled with moments of great beauty. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that one actor may be playing as many as three roles. The fluidity and ritualistic manner with which Smart has his actors change costume pieces, thus transforming into another character before our eyes, is simple, lovely and adds one more dimension to this production. Smart has also designed a beautiful, sparse, expressionistic tropical set on which to stage the play. Lit by Mike McNamara and featuring a fine sound design by Connor Murray, Mr. Smart creates a world far removed from the here and now, however still as immediate as today. Sarah Jo White’s costumes aid the performers’ negotiation between characters, although it’s primarily their fine acting that ultimately accomplishes the trick.
Every member of this strong ensemble is terrific, with a few standouts. Eileen Niccolai is exquisite as Liz Morden, the illiterate woman sentenced to be the first woman to hang. When falsely accused of stealing food she only speaks up for herself because her confidence and self worth have increased through inclusion in the play. No longer alone in this primitive world Liz, like the others, becomes an important part of a communal family. The character’s strength and self-respect, her subtle evolvement from beginning to end, is all credited to Ms. Niccolai’s honest portrayal.
Steve Peebles brings humanity and pathos to Lt. Ralph Clark, an officer hoping at first just to be noticed and raised to a higher rank through directing “The Recruiting Officer,” the play-within-a-play. But Peebles’ character learns to see his actors, the same convicts he once looked down on, as human beings sharing the same wants, fears and love as himself. Abbey Smith provides a quiet strength and dignity to Mary Brenham, the woman Clark casts in the leading role in his play and with whom he places his trust and affection. Dillon Kelleher creates Jewish convict John Wisehammer not only as a scholar but as a sensitive young man who elicits our empathy. Drew Schad’s mastery of his dual roles as Capt. Arthur Phillip and haunted convict Harry Brewer is award-worthy, and Kevin Viol’s portrayal of two roles, particularly the hilariously flamboyant theatre expert Robert Sideway, is terrific.
Although this production could sometimes use smoother transitions between scenes (partly a problem in the script itself), there is much to recommend in Shattered Globe’s production. The story is fascinating; its themes frighteningly relevant even today; and Roger Smart’s production captures all the immediacy and emotion of Ms. Wertenbaker’s script. The regenerative power of drama told in a story that transports both characters and audience leaving everyone all the better for the journey: this is the “Good” found in this “Country.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 9-February 22 by Shattered Globe Theatre at the Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Theatre Wit box office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by visiting www.shatteredglobe.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.