Locked Up for Our Country’s Good

 

The United States is home to only 5% of the world’s population, yet houses 25% of the world’s prisoners. Why do we lock up so many of our own citizens? That question came to mind during Brown/Trinity Rep.’s production of Our Country’s Good, which is set in an Australian penal colony in 1788.

The prisoners in Botany Bay are thieves, rapists and murderers. They are the scum of English society, taken away to a distant land for “our country’s good” as one of them explains. They have nothing useful to do with their time until they are offered the opportunity to perform a play called The Recruiting Officer. Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, one of the prison camp’s officers, serves as the play’s director. Clark has to deal with the complaints and reservations of his group of actors. They argue over their dialogue and the characters they are asked to inhabit. Meanwhile, the camp’s officers are unsure whether the prisoners should be allowed to put on a show. Do the prisoners deserve to be entertained? Can these miscreants really be rehabilitated?

Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker has crafted a thoughtful exploration of this bleak world, which seems to suffocate the jailers as much as the inmates. Although it is a drama, there are also humorous moments that break through the “fourth wall.” When one of the prisoners expresses concern over audiences being able to understand the play, Clark says anyone who can’t pay attention has no place attending the theater. This line was punctuated by the actors looking directly at the audience.

Kimie Nishikawa’s set design, which included elevated wooden platforms, suited the show perfectly.

The large ensemble performed under the expert direction of Ashley Teague, and many of the cast members play dual roles. Chris Stahl was superb as the temperamental Clark and Will Turner had a commanding presence as Captain Arthur Philip, the top officer in the camp. Philip expresses his own unhappiness in one memorable scene. He really does not want to be ruling over a bunch of criminals. It is not the way he wants to spend his life. Alexis Green was mesmerizing as Liz Morden, a prisoner who faces punishment for a crime she may not have committed. Marina Morrissey, as Mary, and Maggie Mason, as Dabby, brought a lot of personality to their roles. We see the basic humanity of these women, who are not entirely beyond redemption.

Our Country’s Good will leave you thinking about the unfairness of our criminal justice system and the souls who dwell within it.

Our Country’s Good runs through March 11 at Pell Chafee Performance Center, Citizens Ban Theater. Providence. For tickets, go to trinityrep.com.

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