A Fair Country

Bay Area premiere by Inquiline Theatre

Slated for a run at the Magic Theatre a few years back, Jon Robin Baitz's A Fair Country fell through the cracks when artistic director Mame Hunt left. Now the itinerant, can-do Inquiline Theatre picks it up for a Bay Area premiere. Set primarily in apartheid South Africa and the Hague during the Carter-Reagan transition, the play chronicles the breakdown of the family of a U.S. Information Officer (i.e., he promotes multicultural arts), which begins when the mother calls the South African police on her maid, who went into what her son, Gil, calls a "Zulu rage." Though the left-leaning Burgesses don't seem to be racists, Harry, Patrice, and Gil often adhere to the prescribed role of their race -- and they assume that others will do the same. Though this angle keeps the play relevant, the script falters in its tight focus on the family and its lack of strong black characters.

Still, Baitz doesn't let his white characters off the hook, though the script creates problems for some of the actors. Harry (played with nuance by Keith Burkland) sells out his older son, Allie, to get a cushy job with Voice of America. Though Patrice (Linda Lowry) struggles with South African politics, it's hard to believe that a fight with a maid would trigger a breakdown: Clearly Lowry needed to find a better motivation. On the night I attended she often overacted -- to the point of missing lines -- at times reaching Mommie Dearest proportions. But Karl Ramsey worked Gil's transitions from prep-school boy to hip artsy type to secluded archaeologist with a seamless subtlety, alternating between naïveté and cynicism while showing disdain for his mother's faux pas. Allie (Peter Heitmann), a journalism student with friends in the anti-apartheid underground, judges his family's actions from afar. Unfortunately, this distance results in a cardboard-cutout leftist reporter. Had Baitz included scenes with Allie's friends, for example, or fleshed out the underground's presence, Allie's rhetoric would have had more impact, as would the death of his friends at Harry's hand. Allie's girlfriend, Carly (a funny Jennifer Gabbert), is a surprising role; she seems a total ditz but proves to have her wits about her when it counts. Acting blips aside, Val Hendrickson's directing creates a wonderful frame with the first and last scenes, focusing on the strain that both politics and race relations put on individuals and families.


Through March 25. Tickets are $12-15; call 289-2260.
New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at 8th St), S.F.

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