A Fair Country

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

There’s a certain fatalism in the work of Jon Robin Baitz, a feeling of helplessness in the face of grave social injustice. Setting much of his ironically titled new A Fair Country in late-70s South Africa, he creates the sense that for the play’s white American family even to exist is to collaborate with racism and corruption. In Baitz’s unfair country, every action, whether small or ambitious, is futile. Every attempt to subvert the social order is doomed to backfire. It’s not enough to say that there are no easy answers to the dilemmas faced by the Burgess family in this intelligent, heartrending play; there are no answers at all.

A scene near the end of the first act on the veranda of the Burgesses’ home in Durban, South Africa, establishes the family as a sort of exiled, outmoded royalty. As Hilton, their trusted and respected South African black servant, officiously pours tea and attempts to take breakfast orders, the family members react to his servile role in ways that reflect their frustrated inability to effect social change. Alec Burgess is a swaggering leftist 25-year-old journalist just returned from New York, where he lives below his means in a cold-water flat writing revolutionary screeds and befriending displaced members of the African National Congress; like an uneasy, obsequious dinner-party guest, this “Che Guevara of the East Village” lunges for the teapot and mocks his parents’ use of servants, making everyone uncomfortable.

Alec’s self-effacing gay younger brother Gil, who seeks to ensure domestic peace at any cost, bosses Hilton around as if by his rudeness he might compensate for his parents’ disrespect, making them seem guiltless by comparison. The mother, the devilishly witty but miserable and neurotic Patrice, focuses obsessively on details, acknowledging that the whole societal makeup is “unreasonable” but knowing she has no hope of changing it. Harry Burgess is the lumbering and irrelevant patriarch, whose key contribution to international relations is inviting Andrew Young and the cast of Pippin over for cocktails in his posh Durban digs; he approaches the ritual of tea with sighing acceptance, wearily acknowledging that there’s nothing to be gained by interference.

The desire to escape is every bit as evident here as the knowledge that escape is impossible. Though the Burgesses journey around the globe trying to alter their fate, they remain prisoners of it, playing out variations on an ill-starred theme. Looming over the proceedings is the specter of U.S. president Jimmy Carter: Baitz frequently refers to his fruitless efforts to free the American hostages in Iran, suggesting the futility of good intentions.

But while Harry Burgess is in Togo on business, he’s given a Faustian opportunity to free his family from the poisonous environment of South Africa. Approached by a shady government operative straight out of a John LeCarre novel, he’s offered a plum position working for the Voice of America in the Hague, on the condition that he provide information about Alec’s ANC contacts. Seeing his family on the brink of collapse, Burgess naively accepts the terms of the pact and, by acting to save his family, seals its fate.

This plot twist may strain credibility a touch. Would a blowhard recent journalism grad working for the New York equivalent of In These Times really have any contacts that would be of interest to the Pretorian government and sleazy CIA types? Nevertheless, this development places the Burgesses in a wholly different yet also ruinous situation, suggesting that their plight is universal. Even though the family relocates to plusher digs in Holland, that bastion of tulips and tolerance, the same forces of injustice conspire to destroy them. A tenants’ committee seeks to evict the Burgesses from their Mondrian-inspired dwelling because of Gil’s dalliance in the building’s basement with a teenage lad. And after Alec makes an impulsive visit to South Africa, uncovering his father’s betrayal, he returns for one final visit to his parents. While New Year’s Eve fireworks erupt outside, the Burgess family finally collapses under the weight of its own history of deceit. Meanwhile a radio news report trumpets the end of the Iranian hostage crisis: Jimmy Carter and Harry Burgess have failed, and the cold, cynical realpolitik represented by Ronald Reagan is destined to succeed. The play begins and ends in the same ruins–at an excavation site in Mexico to which Gil escaped in 1987 (most of the play is flashbacks), pursuing the Sisyphean task of piecing together archaeological shards. During the play’s coda, Patrice and Gil shout in unison to scare away a looter, but as the lights dim one has the impression that their success is only temporary and that neither the looter nor society will allow the Burgesses peace.

If there was any doubt after The Substance of Fire, Baitz’s best-known work, that he’s a playwright of significant talent, intelligence, and compassion, A Fair Country should settle the matter once and for all. Witty, insightful, and compelling, his script is so carefully nuanced, so artfully structured, that even its occasional belabored or contrived moments inspire or provoke. Comparisons have been made between Baitz and Arthur Miller (All My Sons in particular comes to mind), and Baitz may share with Miller a sense of moral outrage and a tendency to preach. But he’s less inclined than Miller to place blame or to side with one character over another. This is not to say that Baitz is the superior playwright, only that his aim is different: he’d rather define a social dilemma than solve it. And if A Fair Country leaves a bitter taste, it may be because Baitz doesn’t allow for the kind of potential solution Miller does in The Crucible and An Enemy of the People. By play’s end one senses Baitz’s own feeling of powerlessness as a playwright: he can’t right the world’s wrongs any more than Harry Burgess can. All he can do is write a fascinating, fatalistic work.

The play is not flawless. There are moments in the opening dialogue between Gil and Patrice that feel self-consciously theatrical, more exposition than conversation. Alec’s death is referred to only briefly near the conclusion in an offhand manner, as if to describe it in any greater detail would underscore its improbability. And the character of Alec’s girlfriend, Carly Fletcher, is puzzlingly underdeveloped and expendable, serving only to provide Alec with inarticulate moral support (“Chill out”); more irritating, she distracts from the drama of the family confrontation. Yet the complexity and profundity of the other characters’ struggles more than compensate for the flaws in the script.

It’s a credit to Baitz’s skill as a writer and Scott Zigler’s as a director that the complex, frequently contradictory network of relationships between the characters is always fully apparent. Each sidelong glace that Alec (Lawrence Grimm) shoots at his father (Robert Breuler), each plaintive and probing stare that Gil (Barney O’Hanlon) supplies his mother (Barbara-eda Young), is significant. The flawless cast in Steppenwolf’s superbly designed production devours every morsel of meaning in the rich script; Breuler and Young are particularly convincing as elder members of the obsolete American aristocracy feebly yearning to escape their destiny. This is a vital, deeply moving production–a futile act, perhaps, but memorable and rewarding nonetheless.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still photo by Michael Broslow.