The Welsh Motherlode Theatre Company has brought a powerfully staged, smashingly acted piece of theater to The Flea Theater, full of roaring passion and wonderful music. Its title is unfortunate – this The Good Earth has no connection to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Pearl S. Buck or the Oscar-winning movie the book spawned – but it does nicely fit this story of Welsh villagers struggling to stay in their ancestral homes.
Because it’s told predominantly from a child’s perspective, the narrative is rather murky, though it was inspired by real events. Fearing a repeat of a 1966 coal mine collapse, the government commissioned stability tests on a mining mountain and urged the local residents to abandon their village and move to hastily constructed cheap houses “down the road.” The Good Earth turns a poetic lens on the quandary facing townsfolk in this difficult situation.
Setting the scene for us is Jackie Adams, a little girl played by adult actress Gwenllian Higginson in a vividly convincing performance. Jackie lives with her mother Dina and her older brother James (powerful turns by Rachel Boulton, who also directs, and Mike Humphreys respectively). She also introduces us to other characters, most importantly James’s girlfriend Gwen (Anni Dafydd), who’s “not from around here” and who, unlike Jackie’s family speaks Welsh, and their neighbor and friend Trish (Kate Elis).
Via heavily stylized performances the cast makes these people pulsatingly alive, and exaggerated in just the way a child perceives the important adult figures around her to be. One thing Jackie’s perspective doesn’t give us, though, is any sense of the mining heritage of this community. We learn that her father abandoned the family after he lost his job, but the nature of that job means nothing to the girl. Even the adults make no mention of mining. One assumes we’re meant to understand that the mountain has been “mined out” and the industry is dead here, but to American audiences that may be unclear; the village seems to be thriving, or at least chugging along, at the start.
At first the show’s seeming lack of reference to the long historical and cultural traditions surrounding Welsh mining bothered me. Something important seemed missing. But on reflection, I found the absence made sense from the perspective of a young girl, especially one who has has had a more-or-less happy childhood where “the mountain” isn’t a place of grueling work but a giant playground.
The show’s real weakness isn’t that perspective; Jackie is a marvelous creation, Higginson’s performance in itself worth the price of admission. It’s the presentation of the story itself. The affecting scenes and speeches, the rough, unison blocking, the starkly beautiful and inspiring a capella singing (in which the troupe’s four women and one man evoke the grand tradition of the Welsh male chorus) reveal oceans of emotion. But that passion seems somehow out of proportion. If the mountain really is in danger of collapsing, then of course the villagers will have to swallow their sadness and move. Most do; by the end, Jackie’s family is a rare holdout. On the other hand, the Council has offered them no real evidence of the danger, so their unwillingness is entirely understandable.
Yet the play doesn’t infuse the drama with stakes that seem high enough to account for those extremes of feeling which culminate in James’s defiant, climactic speech to the Council.
As discrete elements, though, the scenes are realistically toned and effective. In one fine example, Trish confesses to Dina that she has spurned the local chip shop to eat at a posh new restaurant in the new development. Dina is shocked, shocked, but the two friends end up having a laugh over it. In another, Gwen’s decision to accept one of the new houses sours James’s marriage proposal. These conflicts feel real.
Most affecting, and most revelatory in a general human sense, is the play’s exquisite depiction of the relationship between Jackie and the older brother she idolizes. James takes her to a riverside spot where he used to go with their father, whom she never knew. She asks what James called him – “Dad” or “Daddy” – and what she would she have called him. Another time, they play hide-and-seek in the woods, which are represented by a cluster of metallic columns that heretofore have depicted the geologists’ testing rods, so oppressive to Dina.
“We don’t tell lies, do we, me, you, and James?” Jackie demands of her mother by way of reassurance when doubt casts a shadow. The troupe itself comes across as a family of that kind of honesty through this production.
The ending is a puzzle. Its ambiguous climactic action and aftermath aren’t the only confusing moments. But despite its flaws, this collaboratively written play is very well worth seeing for the marvelous performances (spoken and sung); for the sheer, stripped grandeur of the clever minimalist staging; for the troupe’s mastery of meta-theatricality to create a livid, vivid world; and for its overall emotional punch.
The Good Earth is at The Flea, 41 White St., NYC through September 3. After that you’ll have to cross the pond to see it back in Wales. For tickets visit The Flea online or call 866-811-4111.