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A CurtainUp Review Good Will

Theater 3 is conveniently close to the main theater district and with a stage wider than most of the better known small houses along Theater Row to allow for interesting staging. And staging that's not only interesting but quite perfect is what you get in Good Will, a 1983 novella by Jane Smiley adapted for the Directors Company by Joan Rater and Tony Phelan (who also directs). When you take your seat all you see is a curtain patched together from burlap potato sacks. This isn't a case of a small company making do with found objects for an affordable curtain but an immediate and powerful image to set the tone for the play's setting and theme: An American farm where an American family tries to live their dream of a simple self-sufficient life style. They live on an incredible $343 annual income by growing their own food, making their own clothes and furniture, and through barter.

Their story begins promisingly enough, a possible road map for others wanting to pursue this sort of independence from crass worldliness. Overall clad Bob Miller (John Bedford Lloyd) -- husband of Liz (Dana Reeve) and father of young Tommy (Michael Phelan) -- steps in front of that burlap curtain to introduce himself, then throws it open proudly and joyously. Welcome to the idyll the Millers (and set designer George Xenos) have created in the five years they've lived on their farm. The family living room is set three steps down from the rest of the wheat-colored stage which is raked upward towards a wide miniaturized fence. That fence projects a sense of spaciousness as well as the symbolic distance between this self-created, self-contained world.

As anyone who's read Jane Smiley's Pulitzer prize-winning A Thousand Acres knows, her vision of rural life is not particularly idyllic. Good Will which was written almost a decade before the much more widely read novel is not as epochal and far less dark and complicated. However, it contains many of that novel's traits: You are shown a beautiful picture of a content, or nearly so, family (in this case on a Pennsylvania farm) and the picture is then revised by picking away at its edges through bit by bit revelations about the characters who inhabit the canvas. You watch helplessly wishing you could keep the paint from peeling. In the end, you are left with an imperfect picture that can never be put back to its original state. That's what makes the picture real, like real life.

The play gains its strength from the excellent performances of Ms. Reeve and Mr. Lloyd as well as the four other actors. Young Michael Phelan is most convincing as the troubled Tommy, as is Brenda Pressley as an affluent, black woman who has moved into their farm community to teach at a nearby college. Phoebe Jonas does triple duty as the writer, a school teacher and a waitress; and Marj Dusay enters the stage late, briefly but memorably as Liz's mother. That's why I won't be giving away any surprises when I tell you that the Miller's self-sufficient world will shatter and that the only surprise is that it remained intact so long.

The firt signs of trouble in the homespun paradise are Liz's need to be part of a Pentecostal church and Tommy's increasingly troubling behavior school. This last also brings them in contact with Lydia, (Brenda Pressley) the mother of the child whose dolls and fancy pink outfit Tommy destroys. Lydia's understanding leads to a fragile friendship between the children and parents beautifully captured in. a scene in which Liz and Lydia watch Bob and their two children ice skating as they skate around each other's sensitive spots. Unfortunately the friendship opens yet another Pandora's box for Liz and Tommy and so, painfully, scene by scene, the five year dream unravels. In one of these coming-apart scenes, Liz talks about destroyed pink outfit, and we also come to understand the true meaning of the title.

As the novella from which this play was adapted is a minor work compared to the novel that won Ms. Smiley the Pulitzer, so this adaptation isn't a play of major importance. It's too predictable and somewhat too steeped in the lather of soap opera for that. Nevertheless, it affords an enjoyable theatrical experience and as a book-to-stage adaptation it works far better than the book-to-movie adaptation of A Thousand Acres did.

As live theater with a splendidly alive cast and vivid staging, this is certainly one of the best bargains ($12 a ticket) around town. Unless there's an extension, however, it's not a bargain that's going to be available for long.

I read and liked Jane Smiley's shorter works before her better known Pulitzer prize winning A Thousand Acres was published. Happily Good Will is still in print, paired with another novella, Ordinary Love" and available at
Ordinary Love & Good Will : Two Novellas a 1992 Fawcett reprint of the 1983 book

Since this novella -- and the play adaptation -- contain the seeds of the more epochal tragedy of Smiley's acclaimed novel, you may want to re-read (if you've never read it, you should!) we're including links to two modestly prized paperback editions, again at amazon: A Thousand Acres trade paperback edition . . .A Thousand Acres mass market paperback edition

Adapted by Joan Rater and Tony Phelan from a novella by Jane Smiley
Directed by Tony Phelan
With John Bedford Lloyd, Dana Reeve, Marj Dusay
The Directors Company, Theatre 3
311 West 43rd Street / (212) 501-3992
3/1/98-4/04/98; opens 3/19/98
Reviewed 3/23/98 by Elyse Sommer

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