by Alix Cohen
In October 1966, the collapse of a coal spoiltip (the overburden or other waste rock removed during coal and ore mining) in the Welsh village of Aberfan, killed 116 children and 28 adults. Caused by a build-up of water in the accumulated rock and shale, over 40,000 cubic meters of debris covered part of the village, including a school, in minutes. 76 days later, after much investigation, a tribunal determined that The National Coal Board had been at fault.
A Charitable Disaster Fund created for the community faced the heartless resolve of a national agency who decided that each case should be reviewed to ascertain whether parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally. The agency also denied relief to those who escaped uninjured. According to Director Rachel Boulton, it took 20 years for some to receive reparation and “…for a long time the subject was taboo.” Gradually new laws were put into effect.
Inspired by this catastrophe and, one presumes, others like it, The Good Earth presents a town warned against a similar slide. This local council, one infers, motivated more by financial gain than actual safety concerns, pressures its residents to move into a new settlement somewhat further away from the ‘zone.’ One family represents those who steadfastly refuse to wrench their roots in favor of cheap and quick homes.
Mom Dina Adams (Rachael Boulton), has spent her life in Troedrhiwgwair. Abandoned by her husband, she’s raised older daughter Trish (Kate Elis), younger daughter Jackie (Gwenllian Higginson), and the oldest, son James (Mike Humphreys). James’s fiancé, Gwen (Anni Dafydd) lives with the family.
Oh What will you give me?/Say the sad bells of Rhymney/Is there hope for the future?/Say the brown bells of Merthyr/Who made the mine owner?/Say the black bells of Rhondda/And who killed the miner?/Say the grim bells of Blaina…(“The Bells of Rhymney“)
“This is Jackie Ad-ams…Investigates!” our 6 year-old? heroine announces. “As usual, not very much going on. Time to count the sheep.” The girl returns home with news, however. She’s met a man who told her the mountain was dangerous and might fall down. At vivid play with James, Jackie tells him a schoolmate called them improper because they don’t speak Welsh, asks naively what boyfriends and girlfriends do, and reiterates her fear.
The company breaks into a rousing chorus of “Knickerbocker Line,” replete with clapping and stamping. Despite rising concern, they’re not going anywhere either. James leads a town meeting. Mam (Dina) reminds the assembled that in 1959 they were told a reservoir would slide and nothing happened. “They think we’re simple people with simple lives,” she shouts.
James addresses the town council: “Do you honestly think that down there everyone will support one another?! You offer us jobs in big businesses owned by rich people who are 1000 miles away…giving nothing back to the community…” Placards (invisible) are carried, songs sung, tables overturned, slammed down, chairs scraped. Still, neighbors start to leave. Shops and businesses close. Public services are limited.
Like Our Town (Thornton Wilder), Winesburg Ohio (Adapted by Christopher Sergel, based on the book by Sherwood Anderson), and Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the piece is a stylized glimpse of life in real time.
We listen to Jackie Ad-ams investigates! and in some of the best scenes, watch her games with James. Dina and Trish go on baking, but the young woman unwittingly experiences the new town on a date. When Gwen finds she’s pregnant and James proposes, she wants the baby to have a bright, clean home. There’s an unexpected family tragedy reflecting the loss of what a cast member during talk-back called “the dream of a good place” and a decision by the council that comes too late.
Taking the formal, synchronized movement/choreography of the musical Once even further, this production balletically utilizes the furniture to raise tension (it does) and embody upheaval. When not speaking, cast members freeze in place fading to half light, always with apt facial expression. Portions of traditional songs (performed in Welsh) resonate throughout. (Interestingly, these were first recorded in New York in 1965.) Sound is clear, crisp and hauntingly arranged. Musical Direction by Max Mackintosh is splendid.
“It’s about identity,” Anni Dafydd comments in talk-back. “Sometimes land is the only thing they have.”
Stylization works for the piece, except perhaps in the portrayal of Jackie, who appears a spastic caricature. Though the able Ms. Higginson maintains her chosen persona skillfully, (innocence is palpable, glee and curiosity infectious), lack of naturalness prevents real sympathy, especially in relationship to others who act without mannerisms.
The company all have fine voices and move with precision and energy. Facial expressions are priceless. Rachael Boulton’s Dina is tough to her bones and feisty from the gut. Anni Dafydd (Gwen) brings a softness to the piece. Trish is only sketchy, but Kate Elis pulls her weight.
Mike Humphry is a wonderful James- proud, tender, imaginative, and manly.
Lighting Design by Katy Morrison directs attention and enhances mood.
MOTHERLODE THEATRE, RCT Theatres, in association with Wales Millennium Centre,
and Arts Council Wales, presents the US premiere of
The Good Earth
Written and Devised by Motherload Theatre
Directed by Rachael Boulton
The Flea Theater 41 White Street
Through September 3, 2016
Photos: Tom Flannery