After teaching college courses at Indiana's state prison facilities for a decade for the program at Purdue North Central, I was especially curious to see Shattered Globe Theatre's new production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's six-time Tony Award-nominated and Olivier Award-winning drama "Our Country's Good."
Masterfully directed by Roger Smart and now playing until Feb. 22 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago, it is a well-crafted stage story of how the human spirit and creative possibilities can prevail, despite suffering and imprisonment.
This is Wertenbaker's adaptation of "The Playmaker" by Thomas Keneally, set in 1788 as the British Empire begins its penal colonization of Australia. As the officers worry about the unruliness of the thieves, pickpockets, adulterers and prostitutes who comprise the colony, it leads to the casting and production of a play featuring the inmates cast in the roles as an attempt to "civilize and elevate the prisoners as a community."
The press and marketing materials sum up this play's intent perfectly: "Invites the audience to consider the possibilities that theater itself offers for the recovery of voice, the assertion of character and the performance of freedom."
"Our Country's Good" premiered in 1988 at the Royal Court Theatre and later ran on Broadway. This new production, running two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission, feels far more intimate, allowing the audience a closer connection to the characters.
Eileen Niccolai is the stand-out performance as the rough and unruly female captive Liz Morden, a gifted actress who can shoot a glance and convey countless emotion without ever uttering a single word. Steve Peebles gives a commanding turn and subtle balance of emotion, heart and soul, as Lieutenant Ralph Clark, the man who is responsible for assuring the play happens, despite the main hurdles the artistic project encounters.
Dillon Kelleher is in fine form as John Wisehammer, a bespeckled prisoner who's set on making sure every line of the play the group is producing is said true-to-type. Abbey Smith is at her delicate best as Mary Brenham, the woman cast as the female lead who shows playful-promise, while capturing the hearts and eyes of others. Essentially, everyone in this cast offers proud and praiseworthy performances, with exceptional efforts by actor Ben Werling as the merciless Major Robbie Ross.
The production team for the play adds to this theater experience with Roger Smart's exceptional scenic design and Vivian Knouse' props design, both using loads of rope to create a fantastic tropical setting. Sarah Jo White exceeds imagination with her costume design, including very effective on-stage costume changes melding with scene transitions. Michael McNamara sets the tone and mood with on-the-spot lighting designer and Connor Murray's sound design with Jeton Murtishi as composer help transport the audience worlds away. Susan Gosdick is also commended for her work as dialect coach.
Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $30 with students priced at $12 and seniors $25 at (773) 975-8150 or shatteredglobe.org.