County Fair, Gift Theatre Company, at National Pastime Theater. Some folks measure the passage of time in birthday parties, others in Christmas mornings or Thanksgiving dinners. Playwright William Nedved, originally from Iowa, measures it in county fairs: this new play is set in 1995 in the farming community of Hancock, and the county fair provides a frame for the playwright’s portrait of a culture he appears to know well.

It takes a while for us to acclimate to Nedved’s narrative mosaic, which encompasses the past and the present, and to an environment where people speak of loved ones and livestock with equal affection. But the initial confusion gives way to a coherent story line focused on wife, mother, and would-be photographer Gail Clark, preparing almost unconsciously to change her life. (Our orientation is enhanced by the characters’ announcements about where and when each scene is taking place.)

Director Michael Patrick Thornton and his cast reject the temptation to mock, instead portraying even potential stereotypes–the shallow queen of the fair, who aspires to a modeling career, or the prodigal struggling to reassimilate to a universe that seems more restricted than ever–with a natural respect and compassion. After all, the great mural we call America is based on just such small plans as those forged by the citizens of this rural microcosm.