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Theatre in Review: The Good Earth (Motherlode/The Flea Theater)

Gwenllian Higginson, Michael Humphreys, Kate Elis, and Rachael Boulton. Photo: Tom Flannery

A Welsh town's struggle for survival is filtered through the lives of five characters in The Good Earth, a play/performance piece devised by the members of the Wales-based theatre company Motherlode. Bewildered Americans expecting a dramatization of Pearl S. Buck's bestselling novel will be disappointed, although, in an odd way, the two works are thematically similar; the people you will meet at the Flea are hardly peasants struggling to live off the unforgiving land, but they are working-class souls fighting against large, impersonal forces to hang on to the little bit of the world they call their own.

The action of The Good Earth is based on the true story of Troedrhiwgwair, a Welsh village whose inhabitants were faced, in 1973, with a most unwelcome displacement. The British government found that the adjacent mountain was moving and declared the area a threat to public safety. The solution, to move the villagers from their long-held homes to modern accommodations nearby, was seen as a death blow aimed at a community steeped in its own identity and traditions. In the view of the protestors, a way of life was at stake.

The Good Earth focuses on the middle-aged Dina; her adult son, James, and little daughter, Jackie; Gwen, James' fiancée; and Trish, Dina's friend from next door. They band together, rallying their neighbors to resist what they see as a destructive, destabilizing government intervention. (As James bitterly notes, "We're members of the public, without public servants.") But, as time goes by, and the number of resisters dwindles down to a few, cracks appear even among Dina and her circle. In one of the more incisive scenes, Trish ashamedly confesses having gone on a date to the pub that serves the new community; Dina's deadpan response ("Did you have a pudding?") is far worse than any denunciation. Trish's insistence that the date was a dud does little to acquit her in Dina's eyes. When Gwen announces that she is pregnant, James happily gets down on one knee to propose, but their moment of joy curdles when she makes clear that she doesn't want to raise their child in such an embattled environment. What originally comes across as a highly sympathetic portrait of working-class warriors takes a more complex turn when James makes Jackie his accomplice in a lie that threatens to tear the family apart.

It's a rich situation, but it suffers in the presentation. By never straying from Dina and the others, it's impossible to judge if the community really is in peril from the mountain or if it is merely the pawn of powerful bureaucratic meddlers; furthermore, we never see any of the townspeople who leave, nor do we have any sense of their lives in their new settlement. The play is full of troubling details that want more looking into, but the production, under the direction of Rachel Boulton, opts for a severely presentational approach that calls attention to itself, an unfortunate choice when there are so many intriguing issues at hand. The company's acting style is broadly stylized and often pitched at an uncomfortable decibel level; The Good Earth contains more shouting than any other play in town. Every so often, the cast members overturn the three onstage tables and slam them into the floor, as if trying to hold on to our collective attention. The individual characters range from the fairly well-shaded Gwen, played by Anni Dafydd, to the irritatingly caricatured. Watching Gwenllian Higginson strenuously go about the business of playing Jackie, I began to wonder if she was overplaying her characterization of a little girl, or if Jackie suffered from some form of mental impairment.

Whenever the company unites in song, however, The Good Earth suddenly becomes a transporting experience. This production will do nothing to dispel the notion that the Welsh have a uniquely magical gift for vocalizing.

The bare-bones staging unfolds with those tables and a few chairs placed in front of a series of metallic towers of varying heights. Buddug James Jones' scenic concept isn't really suggestive of anything, but Katy Morison's lighting shows how much beauty there is in simplicity. (Andrew Nguyen is the US lighting supervisor.)

Clearly, Motherlode is a collective of enterprising artists, and there is real vigor and more than a little talent onstage. There is, however, a fundamental disconnect between story and storytelling here. In The Good Earth, a fascinating situation is flattened out, purposely rendered in two-dimensional terms. Time and again, we get glimpses of intriguing details that nobody seems interested in illuminating. -- David Barbour


(29 August 2016)

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