Thursday, January 15, 2009

Children of the Corn

The Welsh better themselves in The Corn is Green.

A cynic confronted by the Huntington's production of The Corn is Green might snicker that yes, corn is evergreen. Certainly Emlyn William's inspirational potboiler about the determined Miss Moffat, a spunky schoolmarm who single-handedly educates the coal-mining Welsh, is essentially a parade of stereotypes and contrivances: the comic eccentrics, the good girl gone bad, the great unwashed (literally) - all make their inevitable appearances. Still, this is largely because Corn is the template for just about every such vehicle, from To Sir with Love to Music of the Heart. (Interestingly, Williams flipped the formula to write another template - i.e., lower-class-psycho-stalks-upper-class-woman - in his other big success, Night Must Fall.)

And it's hard to be completely cynical about The Corn is Green once you're confronted by its craft and appealing self-awareness. The play preaches, yes, but does so entertainingly, and always stays grounded in at least a light dramatic conflict; and Williams knows how to set a scene and give a leading lady an entrance (here it's on a bike!) and also seems preternaturally aware of just when to be witty, when to be politically pointed, and when to turn sentimental. And of course in the hands of director Nicholas Martin, who with this production is taking a kind of valedictory lap at his former theatre, the play's many modes are each turned out just about perfectly. These are all commercial ploys, true, but they recall a time when the communal rituals of commercial art were a civilizing force, and so their value may well exceed that of the wallowing excesses of today's cutting-edge wannabes. True, The Corn is Green is somewhat mild and predictable; it's a warm slab of conventional humanism. On the other hand, it doesn't set out to flatter narcissistic teens, and no one pees onstage.

Still, it's worth noting that Williams actually hints at more disturbing themes - of rebellion, and liberal patronization, and the intimate distance between teacher and student - that this production doesn't really pick up on. This is partly because director Martin colorizes the darker edges of this picture (all those coalminers are haler than MGM would have made them), but it's also because its star, Kate Burton, the daughter of you-know-who Burton and currently a lead on TV's Grey's Anatomy, knows how to light up a stage but not really how to limn a character. And no matter how subtly Martin directs her beats and moves and readings (he and she have had a long professional relationship), he can't quite crack her sturdy, simple persona. This was a much larger problem in Martin's Cherry Orchard two years ago than it is here (Burton's Ranevskaya was smart and spunky, too), because Burton's stage type is so much closer to the profile of this character. Still, it would be nice if she treated the role as more than just a vehicle for her obvious stage savvy.

But then I'm forgetting that this particular bicycle has been built for two. For playing opposite Burton, in a role loosely modeled on the playwright himself, is the actress's son, Morgan Ritchie (also the son of director Michael Ritchie, late of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which Martin now runs, and where this production premiered). If all this sounds a bit cozy, well, it is - maybe a little too cozy. Young Ritchie has something of you-know-who's look about him, and certainly some stage presence, and yes he and his mother are of Welsh descent; but perhaps he doesn't have quite enough of his grandfather's earthy fire to carry off the central conflict of the play - which is, in the end, a sublimated romance between teacher and student. Clearly things could get uncomfortably Oedipal if the twists in said relationship went too far - and nobody wants young Ritchie to end up in therapy! Still, the central dynamic is now flatly maternal, and there's clearly more to it than that; after all, the plot puts Miss Moffat in direct competition with sexual temptation, and even leaves her at curtain holding a baby, as well as the bag.

This gap is all the more frustrating because there's so much colorful character work around the central pair. Local hero Will Lebow does his usual magic with his sonorous voice and perfect sense of timing and proportion, while Bobbie Steinbach twinkles determinedly in a stock comic role. But perhaps the strongest turns of the night came from Kristine Nielsen and Mary Faber, as Miss Moffatt's housekeeper and her daughter (a.k.a. The Girl Gone Bad), who both skillfully avoided the pitfalls of their respective roles: Nielsen projected heartiness without getting hammy, while Faber leaped like a gazelle from one improbable plot point to the next. There was more charming character work from Roderick McLachlan and Kathy McCafferty, although McCafferty sounded slightly winded. The design was at the Huntington's usual handsome standard, although James Noone's set - through the rafters of which we could see the sky - seemed to be aiming at some metaphor (about the potential of education, I assumed) without quite nailing it. Which is unusual in a Martin production; still, generally the show evinced the imprint of a theatrical master (and Martin was probably the last of that breed in Boston). Here's hoping this isn't the last time we get to bask in that invigorating theatrical atmosphere only he seems to be able to conjure.

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