Kate Burton and Morgan Ritchie
in The Corn is Green
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Kate Burton and Morgan Ritchie
in The Corn is Green
(© T. Charles Erickson)
If only every family enterprise ran as smoothly as the Huntington Theatre's Broadway-ready production of Emlyn Williams' The Corn is Green -- being reprised under Nicholas Martin's direction after a well-received 2007 showing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival -- in which Kate Burton plays schoolteacher Miss Moffatt opposite her own 20-year-old son, Morgan Ritchie, as star pupil Morgan Evans.

As theater buffs may know, Burton happens to be Williams' goddaughter, and the prolific playwright was a valued early mentor to her late father, Richard Burton, who played Morgan in a 1947 BBC radio production. But, questions of legacy aside, Burton scintillates as the British ameliorist who takes up the task of educating illiterate children in a remote Welsh mining community in 1895, achieving an extra incandescence whenever Miss Moffat gazes upon her prized creation.

Martin sets a brisk pace for Act 1, in which Miss Moffat almost militarily takes command of her inherited country house, quickly enlisting two neighbors, the robustly religious Mr. Jones (Roderick McLachlan) and a past-her-prime wallflower, Miss Ronberry (Kathy McCafferty), as partners in pedagogy. Moffat's recruitment methods involve more salt than sugar; having read the two conscripts at a glance, she bluntly tells them what's missing in their lives. She's an astute judge of her own character as well -- fully self-accepting, feminist to the core, and what we, these days, would call proactive.

Filling out the household is a salt-of-the-earth cook, Mrs. Watty, a happily reformed sinner who makes no bones about her former penchant for pickpocketing, and her vain, shallow daughter, Bessie. Kristine Nielsen and Mary Faber are thorough delights in these roles, infallibly funny, but never cartoonishly so. Adding further humor is Will LeBow as the beknighted, self-important local Squire, master of all he surveys -- and an imbecilic twit. The scene in which Miss Moffat, strategically playing the "helpless" female, wraps him around her little finger to secure his patronage is a high point of the play.

If there's any fault to be found in this near-perfect production, it's that we never get a sense of danger emanating from Morgan. The character's self-destructive streak is on the page, but Ritchie lacks the smolder that made his grandfather's performances so riveting. (Ritchie did inherit the arresting azure eyes, which could help take him far.) At the outset, roughhousing among his grubby peers, Morgan seems more playful prankster than bully, and his pivotal drunk scene is short on menace.

Nonetheless, these are but small cavils. The Corn Is Green remains an engrossing, timeless story, well retold.