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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Film Society’ Takes Look at South Africa

In two local productions this season of plays set in Africa, injustice takes its toll in blood: “Rebel Armies Deep Into Chad” by Mark Lee and “My Children! My Africa!” by celebrated South African playwright Athol Fugard.

But in Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Film Society,” now in its San Diego premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, the tragedy in South Africa is quieter but just as deadly--the kind that makes one friend sell out another and leaves those who refuse to oppose injustice on the side of those with blood on their hands.

“The Film Society” has already received heaps of awards for Baitz: the 1989 Dramatist Guild Award for Best Play, the 1990 Oppenheimer Award and the Theatre Communications Group Prize.

The script doesn’t seem to merit that much hoopla--it’s an uneven tale with a rather obvious ending. But one can understand how it may have touched a raw nerve in telling a story reminiscent of “Dead Poets Society” from the perspective of three white teachers in an exclusive boys school in South Africa.

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At the Blenheim School for Boys, two boyhood friends are now teachers with wildly different reaction to the apartheid system in which they live.

Terry Sinclair (Stuart McLean) wants to bring black African speakers into the classroom, which gets him fired. Jonathon Balton (Brian Salmon) wants to avoid controversy; his dream is to set up a film society in which he can show such escapist fare as “Top Hat.” He even tries to land “A Touch of Mink,” only to end up with “A Touch of Evil.”

Of course there is more than “a touch” of evil in the world in which Jonathon lives. Jonathon doesn’t want to see it or acknowledge that, for once in his life, he will have to take a stand if he is to help his friend. But it’s clear to the audience that he will have to make a choice, thanks to Ocie Robinson’s wonderfully revealing set.

At the center, or heart of the stage, is Jonathon’s classroom. The walls are jagged at the edges as if they are being eaten away by encroaching reality. On one side of the classroom is the bare, impoverished looking apartment of Terry and Nan Sinclair and on the other, the wealthy, red-velvet draped sitting room of Jonathon’s mother.

It is a perfect symbol of the new ideas and the old squeezing Jonathon until he must decide between them.

Olive Blakistone’s direction is at its best within the scenes, but she has trouble ending the scenes and making one flow into the next cinematically--turning the play of Jonathon’s life into a movie of sorts, the one movie he never ordered and didn’t want to see.

For the most part, the cast successfully plumbs the pain of this bastion of whiteness at the edge of a changing world.

Salmon is all hesitation and resistance as Jonathon, who tries and fails to keep reality at bay. Karen Bender Lust brings great dignity to Terry’s resilient wife, Nan. Stuart McLean has a tougher job with Terry, an enigmatic figure who wrestles with conflicting desires to escape South Africa and to stay in the only place he feels at home. Kurt Reichert is appropriately unyielding as the reactionary teacher Hamish Fox.

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Daniel Grossbard seems a bit overwhelmed by his part as the headmaster, Neville Sutter. One needs to see more clearly that his compromising spirit is the result of being the man Jonathon is destined to become.

There is too much softness to Ann Richardson for the role of the hard-dealing she-dragon, Mrs. Balton. Richardson, who was so good in “The Madwoman of Chaillot” at the Marquis Theatre, fares better portraying odder, more mystical characters. One keeps expecting her to wave her hand and create something magical despite the fact that Mrs. Balton is one person who has no magic in her--just hard business sense.

Robinson, who also designed the excellent set for “Fences” in the Lyceum Space, also did the fine lighting. The costumes, by Marje Halterman, seem just right from the jackets with insignias that the male teachers wear to Lust’s loose, light-colored dresses, so fitting for the African heat.

Although not without its flaws, “The Film Society” is a serious production about a serious subject and one that bears further discussion in a world that is a long way from resolving the issues it raises.

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“THE FILM SOCIETY”

By Jon Robin Baitz. Director is Olive Blakistone. Sets and lighting by Ocie Robinson. Costumes by Marje Halterman. Sound by Marvin Read. Stage manager is Larry Corodemas. With Brian Salmon, Karen Bender Lust, Stuart McLean, Daniel Grossbard, Ann Richardson and Kurt Reichert. At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays with Sunday matinees at 2 through June 2. Tickets are $10-12 with discounts for seniors, students and military. At Lomas Santa Fe Plaza, Solana Beach, (619) 481-1055.


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