Late in Act Two of The Corn is Green, Emlyn Williams' play finally gets interesting. Prior to this, we've been watching a pleasant but overly familiar tale about a teacher who sets out to educate the underclass. All the inevitable features are there: the noble pedagogue, fitfully subject to self-doubt; the backward students, some of them willing, some recalcitrant; and even the local capitalist, unhappy to think that education might swipe some key elements of his labor force. But just when we've decided that Williams' 1938 play is one we can safely snooze through, the unexpected happens: Bessie Watty, a servant's daughter, announces that she's pregnant with Morgan Evans' child. Now this is unthinkable: Morgan Evans happens to be teacher Mrs. Moffat's prize pupil, the one that she's trying to get into Oxford. And dim, slatternly Bessie is a walking advertisement for the mind/body distinction: she finds education a waste, and wouldn't at all mind forcing her once-only lover to give up his studies and return to the unhealthy, brain-numbing life of a miner. With this plot twist, the play is no longer formulaic. Now The Corn is Green is about nature versus culture, about the claims of the body and the life of the mind as combatants for the destiny of one promising young Welshman. And for a time (before Williams finds an overly convenient solution), The Corn is Green is a satisfying drama. Knowing its background makes it all the more fascinating. Because George Emlyn Williams, like Morgan Evans, was born in rural Wales, and could very well have spent his life slaving in the coal mines. But a schoolteacher inspired him to seek a higher education, and he matriculated at Oxford, where he also took on his first role as an actor. In time he would become known as an actor, playwright, screenwriter, novelist and director. He would write 20 plays and participate in more than 50 film and television projects. Two of his plays would be turned into films — The Corn is Green would star Bette Davis — and he would play Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas in celebrated one-man shows. True, Williams was born in 1905, while his play takes place in the 1890s. But aside from this discrepancy, we can be pretty sure as we watch The Corn is Green that Morgan Evans is Emlyn Williams, and that the backwardness of the play's mining town is neither imaginary nor exaggerated. Williams knew this territory like he knew himself.
And still, for an act and a half, the play doesn't satisfy. Yes, it's intriguing at first to hear some characters speak Welsh, and the singing that punctuates the action is tuneful and charming. But even apart from the predictability of the main plot, Williams has a distressing habit of finding too-easy answers to difficult questions. For example, no sooner does Miss Moffat arrive in "Glansarno" than she meets John Goronwy Jones and Miss Ronberry — who have nothing better to do than to become teachers in her new school. And no sooner does Miss Moffat decide the school idea is a bust than she reads an essay by Morgan Evans — and decides she must carry on, if only to cultivate this budding genius. Is Bessie locked in her room? She easily escapes out a window. Does the local mine owner want his labor force uneducated? A little flattery and he's purchasing a barn with the motive of turning it into his former enemy's schoolhouse. Again and again, when powerful forces logically oppose his protagonist, Williams finds an easy out and thereby undercuts his drama's credibility. So one of our reasons for going to the theater — to see credible human problems truthfully analyzed — finally has to be jettisoned. And we discover that the play is losing its grip on us.
Well, at least there's the acting. The Asolo company is usually first-class, and that's certainly the case with The Corn is Green. Three performers really dominate this production: Carolyn Michel as Miss Moffat, Bryan Barter as Morgan Evans, and Laura Lowry as Bessie Watty. Michel's Moffat is a self-confident, nearly self-sufficient educated woman, committed to being a light in the darkness and happy to have a mission that's worthy of her time. Barter's Evans is more complicated: Especially powerful is his look of confusion as he tries to understand whether this education he's receiving is something to be welcomed or shunned. And that's not all that Barter communicates with his expressive face: There's also the panic that comes from realizing that, with this education, he's becoming a stranger to his friends — and to himself. Finally, Lowry is terrific as the hedonist Bessie Watty. Alternately petulant and seductive, a student of the senses who's just getting started, Lowry/Watty is the sort of thing that Camille Paglia had in mind when she wrote about the revenge of the sensual against the intellectual. "Are you going to take up a life of sin?" asks one of the characters, and Bessie says, "I shouldn't be surprised." Neither should we, thanks to Lowry's meticulously convincing portrait.
There are other fine performances in the large (17-actor) cast: David Breitbarth as John Jones, Devora Millman as Miss Ronberry, Douglas Jones as the complacent Squire, and Bradford Wallace in the small part of Old Tom. James Kerr's direction is impeccable, and Jeffrey W. Dean's living-room set is beautifully detailed. Vicki S. Holden's period costumes, like James D. Sales' lighting, couldn't be better.
The same can't be said for Williams' script. Too often, The Corn is Green is either predictable or facile, and though one press release calls it "A Welsh Pygmalion, it lacks Shaw's wit and sense of social urgency. This is an interesting play on occasion — but only on occasion. The rest of the time, it skates away from the truths it references.
Miss Moffat may be a fine teacher. But we have little to learn from The Corn is Green.
Contact Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.