At one point in Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good," now receiving a handsome and thoughtful (if occasionally too polite) production with Shattered Globe under Roger Smart's direction, the governor of the newly established hamlet of Sydney observes: "A play is a world unto itself, a tiny colony we could almost say."
Of course, the colony of Sydney is of the penal variety, and the play-within-the-play in Wertenbaker's 1988 piece, George Farquhar's Restoration comedy, "The Recruiting Officer," has been cast with pickpockets, whores, and those who await a closing-night date with the hangman, as well as the hangman himself. The real-life dramatic stakes for those facing kangaroo courts in the land of kangaroos trump the disguises and double-crosses of Farquhar's tale, even as the actors double-and-triple-up on roles, changing costumes and genders onstage from a series of trunks on Smart's own spare but evocative set. (A palm tree constructed out of rope and several small "shrubs" that echo the cat-o'-nine-tails neatly suggest the possibilities of torture and execution surrounding the convicts.)
If you've seen the excellent documentary "Shakespeare Behind Bars" (and you should if possible), in which inmates find both redemptive meaning and painful resonances while rehearsing a production of "The Tempest," then the outlines of Wertenbaker's take on the power of theater to transcend social roles — even for the lowest on the rungs — will probably land home. Adapted from Thomas Keneally's historic novel "The Playmaker," Wertenbaker's play hums along multiple lines of class, gender, and race — an unnamed aboriginal figure (Arch Harmon) shows up from time to time to ruminate upon what the incursion of the white colonists means for his people.
There is even a whiff of "Waiting for Guffman" in Smart's production — at least when it lets down its hair a bit and allows the inherently comedic premise of a group of rightfully resentful convicts aping their soldier jailers to breathe. Finding the balance between the horrific (the play begins with a flogging aboard the ship bearing the convicts and the British First Fleet to Australia) and the ridiculous — the filthy and food-deprived prisoners fighting over the size of their roles — is tricky. I'd say neither Wertenbaker's script nor Smart's production really finds that balance until the second act, especially given the sheer volume of historical and character details front-loaded in the first act.
But there are some stellar performances from the jump.
Steve Peebles' decent but conflicted Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who takes on the role of director with an evangelical zeal that is soon sorely tested by both the squabbling cast and the sadistic punitive impulses of Ben Werling's Major Ross (himself still seemingly enraged by the loss of the American colonies five years earlier), builds Clark's shifts with subtle but pointed effectiveness. He moves from a man suffused with suffocated desire for his faraway wife to one willing to toss off old cultural mores in the new land for an affair with his smart but timid leading lady, Mary (Abbey Smith). Dillon Kelleher as Wisehammer, a convict whose Jewish faith makes him an outcast among outcasts, finds poetry in the scenes where he rhapsodizes about the power of words. His pointed observation on how the prefix "in" — as in "injustice" — negates the finest human impulse has aching truth.
Perhaps best of all is Eileen Niccolai as the illiterate and rage-filled Liz Morden, whose refusal to speak in her own defense when accused of theft puts her at risk of hanging. Tiny in physique, Niccolai and her performance looms large in conscience and truth. Even those skeptical of the underlying argument in "Our Country's Good" — theater has the power to expose and transform even the most desperate of lives — will probably find themselves rooting for Niccolai's mighty mite and her ragtag comrades by the end of the show.
When: Through Feb. 22
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $30 at 773-975-8150 or shatteredglobe.org