Men at hard labor

Acting is a redemptive force in the University Theatre’s new production

by Greg Corradini

The first British settlers in Australia weren’t searching for religious freedom like the pilgrims.

They were pickpockets and small-time thieves from the lower classes. Some of them had merely stolen a loaf of bread.

In 1788, a boatload of prisoners and their supervisors landed near the shores of what is now Sydney, Australia. Their aim was to start a penal colony that had as much to do with British imperialism as punishment of criminals.

The University Theatre’s “Our Country’s Good” takes this peculiar piece of history as its dramatic focus.

The real story, however, rests with the idealism of 2nd Lt. Ralf Clark (Eric Holm), who believes that punishment is not the key to transforming crooks into honest citizens.

Director Kenneth Mitchell said he feels the same way.

When Mitchell first saw the play 10 years ago, he said the number of issues in the play – from prison reform to oppression – overwhelmed him.

“The real connection for me was the idea that kindness and brutality can transform the human spirit. If we are treated with kindness and generosity, then we react with kindness and generosity,” Mitchell said.

Presuming that some theater would do the prisoners more good than bad, Clark decides to make the convicts act in a play. As soon as he begins rehearsals, questions of nature versus nurture, class struggle and redemption all surface.

“Our Country’s Good” is writer Timberlake Wertenbaker’s most well-known play.

The optimism inherent in her script, despite its overall glum subject matter, is derivative of the larger theme: theater as therapy.

Mitchell said, “I think the idea that art, and beyond that education, can redeem is intriguing. We reflect how we are taught and treated. The theater is a very specific way to get at (that) universal theme.”

In “Our Country’s Good,” Wertenbaker posits that if the power of theater can bring change to the lowliest of criminals and bread-stealers, then there’s still hope.