A wonderful old standard like "The Corn Is Green" must be rediscovered rather than just revived, if it's to capture a new generation. The potential fustiness of an earlier era's theatrical conventions must be swept away with the affectionate enthusiasm that comes of renewing whatever timeless truths have made the play last. The weakness of the Barter Theater's essentially competent production, which opened its first winter season in this area, is that it lacks that excitement.
A welcome is due this respected group, soon to enter its 50th year of residency in Abingdon, Va., and congratulations are due to the people who oversaw the match between the theater and George Mason University, which had a new theater that serves the need of a serious company as well as those of nearby Fairfax residents. Although Fairfax is not exactly distant from downtown theaters, it can't hurt the theater business to have an outpost in suburbia that isn't a dinner theater.
The play is Emlyn Williams' somewhat autobiographical 1938 classic, set in a Welsh mining town. Dame Sybil Thorndike was Miss Moffat in the London production, and Ethel Barrymore had a good run with it here. Some may be familiar with the movie, or the television version of a few years back.
It's a variation on the Pygmalion theme, only this time the teacher is a brusque middle-aged spinster and the Galatea a talented but ignorant orphan miner. The single-minded Miss Moffat pounds learning into the young Morgan Evans until he, proud of his humble origins yet longing to escape them, rebels. The product of his rebellion is an illegitimate child produced nine months later, without his knowledge, by Bessie, the minx-like daughter of Miss Moffat's housekeeper. By this time Evans has won a scholarship to Oxford -- his ticket out of his small town -- and Miss Moffat argues that his duty to learn and use his talent is greater than his duty to marry the child's mother.
The argument is simplified somewhat by the fact that the unwed mother cares nothing for her child or for anything but having a good time. Much of the charm of the play rests on the sturdy shoulders of Miss Moffat, whose independence and urgent need to teach and to fix up the lives of others provides a complexity that has attracted mature actresses for decades.
Cleo Holladay is proficient, but without texture, a Miss Moffat whose charm is virtually hidden by her determined competence. When she allows herself a moment of longing that Evans win the scholarship -- "Oh God, he must win it, he must," she whispers -- Holladay gives the lines all the poignance of ordering a cup of tea. Edmund Gero's Evans is solemn and sensitive, and Kathy Fleig gives perhaps the evening's strongest performance as the bad Bessie. The use of music is one of the production's strong points, lovely echoes of lyrical Welsh songs that drift in from offstage as a kind of melodic frame.
The new theater has a semicircular design, and with a more congenial color of paint on the walls (dark brown is somehow institutionally dismal) would be a pleasant playhouse; the sightlines are good, the seats comfortable, and the lobby commodious.
Sometimes one measures the general professionalism of a company by comparatively minor details, such as whether or not the entire wall of a set wobbles when a door is slammed. By such a standard, the Barter is well-equipped. Director Rex Partington has produced a maiden effort for his new audience here that pays careful attention to detail. All it needs is passion.
THE CORN IS GREEN by Emlyn Williams; produced by the Barter Theater; directed by Rex Partington; set by Lynn Pecktal; costumes by Sigrid Insull; lighting by Christopher H. Shaw. With Craig Kuehl, Mary Hamill, Mark Miller, Sarah Buxton, Charles Muckle, Ross Bickell, Marlene Bryan, Kathy Fleig, Cleo Holladay and Edward Gero. At the Harris Theater through Nov. 29.