A plaintive hymn, sung by the cast, is the first thing we hear in “Our Country’s Good,’’ immediately followed by the agonized screams of a man being flogged.
Those alternating currents of lyricism and brutality, humanity and inhumanity, run through “Our Country’s Good,’’ now at Charlestown Working Theater in a forceful but uneven production by Whistler in the Dark Theatre, directed by Meg Taintor.
Based on Thomas Keneally’s historical novel “The Playmaker,’’ Timberlake Wertenbaker’s drama unfolds in the 1780s in an Australian penal colony populated by English convicts, many of whom have been transported for petty crimes.
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD
In this harsh place, a young lieutenant, Ralph Clark (Mac Young) takes charge of an unusual project: to stage “The Recruiting Officer,’’ George Farqu-har’s Restoration comedy, with an all-convict cast. Explains the relatively open-minded captain who serves as governor of the colony, played by Jayson Rory James: “It will remind them that there’s more to life than crime and punishment.’’
That reminder proves both heartening and painful for the convicts as, under Ralph’s guidance, they begin to learn their lines and rehearse. Comically inept at first, they slowly begin to take pride in their new craft as actors. These roles are more than roles; they’re a chance to briefly lay claim to an identity larger than that of mere prisoner. One convict, well played by Zach Eisenstat, is so inspired by his theatrical experience that he writes a new prologue to “The Recruiting Officer.’’
However, they are forcefully reminded of their status when it is discovered that several prisoners have escaped. An officer, portrayed by Chris Larson, viciously humiliates the convict-performers in the middle of a rehearsal, just as they are starting to feel like humans again. A prisoner named Liz Morden (Meredith Stypinski), accused of helping the escapees by stealing food, faces hanging.
Yet the convict-performers resolutely continue to prepare for their performance. These play-within-a-play rehearsals are the most fully realized scenes in Whistler’s “Our Country’s Good.’’ It is then that we see most clearly the animating idea behind Wertenbaker’s drama, that theater can be a force for individual change and possibly social change as well. What stands in the way is the arbitrariness of the powerful (though polemics trump characterization in Wertenbaker’s weak, one-note depictions of most of the officers). So while “Our Country’s Good’’ is shot through with humor, the shadows of the noose and the whip are ever-present.
Also making its presence known on opening night, unfortunately, was the Charlestown Working Theater’s noisy heating system, which posed an unwelcome challenge for an audience trying to follow dialogue delivered in British accents, a few of which were uncertain or overdone.
As with most productions of this play, each member of the Whistler cast plays at least two roles, except for Young. In most cases, an actor plays a convict and an officer. The episodic, fast-moving structure of “Our Country’s Good’’ requires that characters be sharply drawn. Some cast members meet that challenge, and some don’t. Larson is a standout, portraying, in addition to the cruel officer, a prisoner who is forced to become the colony’s hangman, a duty that fills him with anguish and earns him the hatred of the other convicts.
Stypinski’s Liz lacks the raw, fierce quality that crucial character needs to have, while Young’s lieutenant is too tentative and recessive. (The actor also designed the effectively spare set, which consists of packing crates, a trunk, and a long, coffin-like wooden box). Alejandro Simoes delivers an affecting performance as Harry Brewer, a hapless midshipman who is in love with a seemingly indifferent female prisoner, Duckling (Lorna Nogueira). Among the production’s other assets are Jesse Wood as Sideway, a pickpocket; Jen O’Connor as Dabby, a brash prisoner not afraid to make known her own ideas about the play; and Lynn Guerra as Mary, a gentle-spirited convict who is romantically attracted to Ralph.
Seldom, however, does this production rivet your attention or convey the sense of life-or-death stakes that gave such vitality to Whistler’s 2012 productions of Caryl Churchill’s “Fen’’ and Euripides’ “Trojan Women,’’ not to mention the company’s brilliant, high-flying version of “Ted Hughes’s Tales From Ovid.’’
But even when earthbound, Whistler does nothing halfway. As a companion piece to “Our Country’s Good,’’ the company will undertake four performances of Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer,’’ scheduled for March 22-23, March 30, and April 6.