Theatre Mirror Reviews - "A Fair Country"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Beverly Creasey

Sturm and Drang at SpeakEasy

by Beverly Creasey

For those of you not familiar with SpeakEasy Stage, the plucky little theater is one of Boston's most successful and most innovative small theaters, mounting productions time and again which have premiered in New York the season before. Anytime you hear about a provocative new play and wish you had gone to New York to see it, chances are you will see it at SpeakEasy...and soon.

It's no surprise then that SpeakEasy is presenting "A Fair Country" by the hot young playwright Jon Robin Baitz, whose plays about his coming of age in apartheid South Africa have been touted for their intellectual appeal. "A Fair Country" almost succeeds as a morality drama (about a cold, controlling mother and her two alienated sons) a la "Long Day's Journey into Night" ... except that the playwright makes the father's pivotal betrayal depend on a political innocence not possible in the boiling cauldron that was South Africa in the late '70s. And Baitz makes the character of the mother totally unsympathetic --- until the last scene. She is an imperious White woman, strongly portrayed by Shannon Woolley, who calls her Black servants the South African equivalent of the n-word. It's almost impossible to swallow anything from her despicable point of view.

In addition, with one son (Jeffrey Mello) as Baitz mouthpiece, the servant (Wesley Taylor) as a representation of the faithful retainer, and the father (Joe Owens) as Baitz' vehicle for destruction, all you have left is the younger son. Happily, his story is mighty compelling, though unfortunately he's not in the long betrayal set-up. But when he's on stage, in the person of JC Devore, his torment is riveting. His fate is well worth the worry.

A "Noel Coward" coctail scene is a welcome relief from all the Sturm und Drang of family dysfunction, although director Paul Daigneault might have played up the sardonic humor a bit more. All in all, SpeakEasy gives "A Fair Country" a fair hearing. We're grateful to have had the chance to see what all the fuss over Jon Robin Baitz is all about.

And we're looking forward to SpeakEasy's amazing next season, with a play by Wendy Wasserstein, Stephen Sondheim's rarely performed "Pacific Overtures" and the hot property off-Broadway: Douglas Carter Beane's "As bees in Honey Drown". Bravo, SpeakEasy.

"A Fair Country" (till 25 April)
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide