By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Paul Daigneault 
SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts ---closed

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz's "A Fair Country" addresses a classically tragic situation. A father commits a great wrong, believing, against his own better instincts, that it will preserve his family and put him in a position where he will be better able to serve the humane ideals that he and his family share.   A son is devastated by what his father has done, and out of spite and shame gives up his own life.   This is potent drama, from Creon/Haemon in Sophocles' Antigone to Arthur Miller's "All My Sons".  It is pretty potent in Baitz's version, too; because some of the characters are rich with specific detail, and the setting  -- South Africa under the apartheid regime -- is so fraught with moral traps.   The play is drenched in societal guilt, and in the twists and twitches that individual personalities take on and the pain they inflict on one another under that burden.  It is intelligent, earnest, sensitive, with brilliant bits of dialogue; and it is impressive because it incorporates a much wider perspective than is usually the case with our current relentlessly psychological forms of serious narrative.  But "A Fair Country" is ultimately unsatisfying, because although the author manages to get real people and real moral dilemmas onto the stage, Baitz is unable to release the emotion they generate, either into savage satire or into tragedy.

The impulse to satire comes through in the wit and irony of the dialogue, and especially in the handling of the character of Patrice, the family's wife and mother.  Early on, Patrice, a woman of superior sensibility and high principle,  neurotically triggers an explosion of violent rage in the family's African maid, and the police she summons to deal with the maid's rage "beat the crap out of her".  When she tells her sixteen year old son Gil about the incident, Patrice is alternately defiant and deranged.  South Africa is driving her crazy.  Later, Patrice has a tipsy New Year's Eve scene with  a sympathetic Dutch diplomat where she blurts out the unspeakable, and then embroiders it with wit worthy of Noel Coward.  But these excursions into satire are side trips, they go nowhere of consequence.

The straightest path to tragedy would be to focus on the father.  Harry, a US state department  administrator  who arranges cultural exchange programs in South Africa, is frustrated by his ineffectual position, and sees that his family is suffering because they feel complicit in what they all agree is a radically unjust and  oppressive white South African regime.  His older son Allie -- probably his stepson, although the script is less than clear about the relationship -- has defined himself as an enemy of the South African government, and is determined to work in journalism to advance the interests of the black majority.  Harry meets  his old friend and now superior Ellsworth Hodges in an airport and is offered the chance to be promoted out of horrible South Africa and into a civilized European posting where he'd be in charge of an influential new Voice of America magazine show, on the condition that he supply the interested US government agencies with the names of Allie's black nationalist contacts  -- not, he's assured, to make it easy for the evil present regime to pick off its enemies; but because the benign US government wants to cultivate the people who will some day replace that evil regime with a just one.  Harry tells Hodges he doesn't trust the US government, and won't spy for it.  But under the pressure of his wife's psychological deterioration Harry changes his mind: he is promoted, and is living in the Netherlands when  indeed the South African security forces arrest or murder every black South African son Allie has befriended.  But because this central event is off center, and the father never has a scene in which he fully articulates his rationalization for what he does, or, once the awful consequences become known, never takes responsibility for his action or is seen to suffer for it,  there is no cathartic resolution.

Nor is "A Fair Country" son Allie's play.  When he figures out what has happened to all his friends, and why he is now a pariah, Allie flies to the Hague to confront Harry: "You've killed me." he shouts. " Don't you understand that?" But although Allie storms off in utter estrangement (accompanied by his girl friend Carly, an extraneous two dimensional character very well acted by Valerie Sullivan.  Another extraneous two dimensional character very well acted is the African house servant Hilton, performed by Wesley Lawrence Taylor) and after a few years does succeed in getting himself shot to death behind a grocery store in Soweto, Allie's extreme action only has weight and consequence in the play as it brings about a break in the previously close and intense relationship between his much younger brother Gil and his mother Patrice.  Gil, barely eighteen years old, condemns and rejects his father to go away with brother Allie, and seems to believe that his intuitive and outspoken mother must do so too -- should have done so long since.  Gil has no intention of ever forgiving his mother: and it is this mother- son estrangement that frames and shapes --or mis-shapes -- the play. The script begins with a frame scene wherein mom Patrice has trekked across the world to track down son Gil at an isolated Mayan archeological excavation, and this scene is set  in 1987, ten years after the events that led Gil to leave home and break off all communication with her.  By then, Harry has been divorced, coupled with another woman, and died of cancer.  Patrice has been hospitalized for depression. His mother has no family left but Gil, and is ready to go to any length for a crumb of affection or acceptance.  In the final scene, back among the Mayans after hopscothing the world, Gil grudgingly, offers a crumb  -- which seems a thoroughly disproportionate response to all that has gone before.

SpeakEasy Stage Company's Boston premiere has most of the virtues we've come to expect form this fine non Equity troupe.  The set,-- by Susan Zeeman, with the light-magic of John Malinowski-- is visually stunning , and serves well to move the action to its multiple locations. "Ordinary" Joe Owens isn't ideally cast as the aristocratic liberal Harry, but Owens is emotionally committed and manages to fill in some of the complexity the the author's character sketch leaves out.  Jeffrey W. Mello as Allie also struggles with being cast off type and supplied with unidimensional dialogue, but Mello comes across as far less annoying than a wronged and righteous young fanatic would be predicted to be.   JC Devore has the most difficult part technically, in that he must be a callow youth of sixteen in one scene and a responsible scientist of twenty eight in another, and it is astonishing how well he succeeds in this.  His mother Patrice is such a bundle of unresolved contradictions that it's not surprising that Shannon Woolley is effective in some scenes and at sea in others.  Ralph Stokes handles both of Harry's diplomatic colleagues well, although I didn't find his Dutch accent convincing.  But the biggest disappointment is that these characters, in spite of considerable individual emotional authenticity,  exist in a sort of solipsistic haze, and never effect one another in the subtle, complex and constant way that characters in a production directed by the Paul Daigneault usually do.  There's no clear emotional through line, either, though Daigneault generally manages to supply a play with one even in instances where the author hasn't.  But there is so much to engage and challenge the audience in this production, so much evidence of talent and serious intention in what Baitz has written, that it seems impolite to wish for more, or to speculate that "A Fair Country" would work much better as a film.