Behind an unprepossessing storefront in the Plaza Pasadena mall, near the food court, a first-rate theatrical company is evolving.
Pasadena Shakespeare Company's great promise is on ample display in its bang-up, thoroughly entertaining production of "Our Country's Good," Timberlake Wertenbaker's somewhat attenuated drama about the first group of British convicts sent to Australia.
Capt. Arthur Phillip (Michael Santorico), the newly appointed governor of this new British colony, believes in rehabilitating career criminals. In striking contrast, draconian Maj. Robbie Ross (Tim DeKay), who oversees the colony's Marine force, views the convicts as little more than animals, to be worked, beaten, hanged and humiliated as the occasion demands.
Much to Ross' ire, Phillip encourages 2nd Lt. Ralph Clark (J. Todd Adams) to stage a play, using the convicts as his cast. Over the course of their long rehearsal process, the convicts experience the novel sensations of hope and a common humanity, many for the first time.
Based on Thomas Keneally's novel "The Playmaker," the play functions both as sweeping historical drama and as a frequently moving allegory about the redemptive power of the theater. Yet Wertenbaker fails to successfully synthesize her source material, laying lengthy lines of plot that remain snarled at the final curtain.
The play's long-winded limitations are artfully concealed, however, by Dana Marley's streamlined and purposeful staging. The performers, many of whom play more than one role, handle their characters with uncommon skill. The multifarious dialects alone would have swamped a lesser company, but there's not a false note in this ambitious mix.
DeKay is equally convincing as Ross, whose splenetic Scots brogue stays a wee hairsbreadth away from caricature, and as timorous Irish Ketch Freeman, the despised colony hangman. David Paul Needles blusters broadly as the comically inarticulate Capt. Campbell, then renders the tortured decline of the guilt-ridden midshipman Harry Brewer, a common man caught between two irreconcilable worlds, with a fine and delicate hand. Elizabeth Norment sensitively charts the progression of whore and cutpurse Liz Morden from depravity to decency.
Although Wertenbaker's egalitarian sentiments are sometimes troweled on with movie-of-the-week predictability, the play's inherently urgent and emotionally cathartic message is brought forcefully home to us by this promising young company.
* "Our Country's Good," Plaza Pasadena, Green Street and Los Robles Avenue, Suite 296, Pasadena. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Sept. 21. $14. (818) 564-8564. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.