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The Good Earth

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 24, 2016

Anni Dafydd, Gwenllian Higginson, Rachael Boulton,
Mike Humphreys, and Kate Elis
Photo by Tom Flannery

There's a closer relationship between the erosion of the land and the erosion of human souls than you may initially assume. When a people are so tied to a place that to lose even a portion of one causes an incurable rot in the other, every problem is magnified and every loss is catastrophic. You're reminded of this time and again throughout The Good Earth, the energetic but rocky play by the Welsh theatre troupe Motherlode that just premiered at The Flea, in which a tiny, hard-working community in Wales finds itself at odds with both those who govern them and the land on which they all live — and it's not at all clear, for much of the time, which will prove the deadlier.

The play, which was devised by director-star Rachael Boulton, musical director Max Mackintosh, a handful of other performer-artists, concerns the inhabitants of a tiny village who are told that the mountain around which reside is "sliding," and could threaten everyone's lives. The town council is determined to save everyone by uprooting them and relocating them to a purpose-built (and cheaply built) development a mile away. But not everyone wants to leave and sacrifice their own humanity and sense of purpose, which causes a rift between the governors and the governed, and, eventually even within individual relationships. At what point does self-reliance become stubbornness, and prudence become unwise? And if, after many months or years, the mountain doesn't slide, what should the repercussions be?

Most of this saga, which spans from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, is told from the viewpoint of the young girl Jackie Adams (Gwenllian Higginson), who sees in her older brother James (Mike Humphreys), their mother Dina (Boulton), and James's girlfriend Gwen (Anni Dafydd) the woes of her world writ small. Determination gives way to disagreement, which in turn dissolves into pure disorder, as everyone tries to do the right thing — but is unable to agree on exactly what the right thing is. Everyone obviously loves each other, but how that love manifests itself, and what it means for the cause they ostensibly all support, is constantly open for debate.

Of complexity, though, there isn't much — Dina fights with her friend, Trish (Kate Elis), about a date that led Trish into the forbidden new settlement, and James and Gwen similarly bicker about their responsibilities to each other and their compatriots at a particularly inopportune time — and although there doesn't necessarily need to be, a little might temper what is otherwise an overly brash and bombastic evening. Conceived as a sort of pub improvisation (the set, by Buddug James Jones, consists of little more than a series of tables that are mounted, rearranged, turned over, and banged on the floor with thunderous force, and Mackintosh has laced the action with traditional-sounding solidarity songs sung by the company), it's pitched as though by and to and drunken crowd, which is, on some level, the right approach for something that so visibly means so much to those involved.

But the immensity of the resulting presentation, in Boulton's abstract and noncommittal staging, and the roundly broad and often shouty performances (Higginson, in particular, really ratcheting up Jackie's "youth," seems to be playing more to a 5,000-seat arena than a tiny Off-Off-Broadway house), does not match the specifically inward-looking nature of the writing, which doesn't establish as many taut connections between the personal and the profound as the creators apparently think. Except for a few minor intersections, Boulton's lens is trained so tightly on the family that the rest of the town does not come into focus, and that leaves you longing for dimensions you hardly experience.

Worse, certain key concepts that might better support this are not developed as fully as they could be. The first scene, for example, suggests that each actor will play a broad swath of contrasting roles, but this happens infrequently. Hints at the importance of conflicting viewpoints of the same event are realized only in isolated incidents, which robs the action of some of the texture it promises. And the last few scenes so twist around the plot and its elements that even paying rapt attention is no guarantee you won't miss the fuzzy nuances that turn out to be inexplicably critical.

At least Boulton, who imbues Dina with a half-dozen layers of uncertainty her political and parental roles in the protest, is a magnetic figure capable of holding everything else together when it's poised to fly apart. Dina's picturesque devolution, from disinterest to despondency to rage and beyond as her situation degrades, gives you something to relate to that you sorely need: an anchor point that proves the underlying but underdeveloped thesis that, if you're the most complete and correct person you can be, there's no line to be drawn between who you are and where you're from.

Potential interpretations of this are myriad, and many are probably not useful — Brexit and Donald Trump come instantly to mind — but if The Good Earth ultimately stumbles in its execution, you never doubt for a minute that its characters believe the idea as thoroughly as they do that, if their mountain is going to slide, they're perfectly content to go down with it.

The Good Earth
Through September 3
Flea Theater, 41 White Street between Broadway and Church Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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