It's a family affair at the Huntington Theatre this month with their delightful revival of the 1945 inspirational dramady, The Corn is Green, starring local legend (and Grey's Anatomy matriarch) Kate Burton. Ms. Burton, who has led other inspirational revivals at the Huntington in recent years (The Cherry Orchard, Hedda Gabler), is the god-daughter of the playwright, Emlyn Williams (and daughter to Richard Burton) and stars in the show opposite her son, Morgan Ritchie. Not to mention the play marks the first directorial homecoming of former Huntington Artistic Director, Nicholas Martin. The behind-the-scenes story is as schmaltzy and heart-warming as the on-stage narrative, but with this group of players, it's some damn good schmaltz.
The play is undoubtedly the unacknowledged predecessor to the "Teach for Change" feel-good film that Hollywood loves to crank out every few years, e.g. Dangerous Minds, Stand By Me, Music of the Heart, Mr. Holland's Opus. The plot has become formulaic: an independently minded teacher moves into an economically depressed area and starts her own school. The town is against her, the two-dimensional antagonists are against her, even the students are against her. In the moment when she decides to throw in the towel, she reads an inspiring poem by one of her worst behaved students and finds the strength within herself to persevere. Can't you just hear the Maria Carey song that would be nominated for an Oscar for this in Hollywood? Luckily, this play is set in Whales in the latter part of the 19th century, so the music is far more enjoyable to listen to.
As for the performances, Kate Burton lives up to her legend. She delivers an exceptionally commanding performance as if she had been waiting to play this role for years (which she may have). There was not a moment when she was not captivating either as the suffragist woman hellbent on breaking the bigotry of the town's haves or as the hard-as-nails teacher committed to teaching excellence to the have-nots. What is so remarkable about the performance is that Ms. Burton's embodiment of Miss Moffat raises questions about the role of women in power. Our patriarchal culture reserves the word "bitch" for women who behave like men. Ms. Burton's performance (supported by the prescient writing of her grandfather) reclaims "bitch" providing an interesting commentary on how far our society has yet to go for equal rights.
The character who should be described as bitch, however, is Bessie Watty, a conniving, double-crossing. uneducated hussy who uses her base sex appeal to further her status in life. I mention this paradigmatic character presentation not merely to highlight the difference in gender representation, but to point out the other greatest performance of the show. Mary Faber who plays the despicable character does so with such aplomb that you want her to be on stage so you can hate her even more. Despite the obvious two-dimensionality of the character's evilness, Ms. Faber manages to bring a sheer enjoyment to the performance that you just love to hate. Her fabulous costumes, designed by Robert Morgan, only exacerbate the feeling.
As for the "other leading role," Ms. Burton's son seems to lack a few acting genes from the family tree. His performance is serviceable for regional theatre, but really no more compelling than any of the other young actors who grace the stage. Although, he's not a bad actor, his performance raises no doubts that his family heritage got him the part over his ability.
The rest of the company seems to be comprised of many Boston-area actors, which is commendable for the Huntington to support local artists, but negligent in their own nepotism. One can't help but wonder if they are casting based on resume as opposed to talent. Will LeBow appears in the central role of the Squire, but his honky voice and demeanor are no different from the last three roles he's played in Boston. Bobbie Steinbach, another Boston native, plays a relatively good cameo role as the meddling post matron. The only other honorable mention is deserved to Kristine Nielsen who plays the cockney maid, Mrs. Watty. Although her performance mostly panders to the presentational, she displays her gifts as an actress in many comedic turns.
There is a legacy within American theatre to return to feel-good fancy when the economy turns down. Luckily, the Huntington has accomplished this with master talent that does not compromise artistic integrity. The buzz about the show is whether or not it will go to Broadway which seems a ludicrous proposition given the 27 member cast. However, it's a delightful evening at the theatre which will do the Huntington good in this trying economic climes.