7 February 2009: Williams, The Corn is Green

Matinee. Huntington Theatre, Boston University. Directed by Nicholas Martin. With Kate Burton as Miss Moffat, and Morgan Ritchie as Morgan Evans

A mother-and-son team are at the center of this production, and they make a fine, effective pair, having previously played the roles in another produc­tion. It is interesting to speculate how this play fitted into the current historical context when it was first performed in London (as I presume) in 1938, and then again in New York in 1940, as the winds of war were increasing. Emlyn Williams has written a play about the central importance of self-assertion and self-realization, but also about the crucial part that education, leadership, strong will, and imag­ination play in the recognition of talent. In the process, he has found some things to say about the deadening effect of traditional mores, if not questioned by people with deeper insight.

Miss Moffat has inherited a solid house in a remote Welsh region where coal mining is the principal industry. She starts a school to enable young boys, who otherwise might have only a grim future in the mines, to rise up to better things. She finds one, Morgan Evans, to be truly intelligent and full of potential, and in the course of two years educates him well enough to achieve the remarkable feat of winning a scholarship to Oxford.

We know we are in the theatre, fairly early on, as this action works its way out. Williams offers us a romantic tale of a young man who wants to be taken on his own terms entirely, but whose irresistible thirst for knowledge will, we per­ceive, propel him swiftly to success. In fact, the only stumbling block appears in the form of a seduction of him by a scheming young woman who threatens to force Morgan to marry her after she gives birth to their child — just at the mom­ent when Morgan has received the news of his Oxford scholarship. Miss Moffat again comes to the rescue and proposes to adopt the infant herself. As she ex­plains to Morgan, his is the more important task of becoming a “great man” and lifting his fellow mine workers out of drudgery and early deaths, through social change implemented, it would appear, single-handedly. No doubt about it, we are in the embrace of potent generic premises and stereotypes. There is no ques­tion of what might happen to the energy reserves of Britain and the warmth of British firesides, should the population of British miners suddenly be rescued and lifted up to cleaner, higher callings. Nor is there any indication of what would happen in a score of other questions that are sealed off from our view and contemplation by the beautifully constructed romantic structures that contrive to hold this play up for our great enjoyment.

For greatly enjoyable it truly is. Endgame begins at the ART next week, and that will involve a jaunt much farther than merely across the Charles to Cam­bridge. But meanwhile we have time and space to enjoy this exuberantly acted, expertly mounted, finely costumed comedy-drama, a bountiful realization of an expertly crafted play by an author who knows the nuts and bolts of conventional middle-class dramaturgy to a “T.” The director, Nicholas Martin, has seen into the ethical heart and architectonic skeleton, the full superstructure, of this play, and his direction is very clear and beautifully paced and timed, right down to the expertly managed crowd scenes, replete with five miner lads, full of piss and vinegar, and topped off with goodwill and deep-down virtue. A perfect matinee, on a thawing winter afternoon.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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