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Theatre in Review: Greater Clements (Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater)

Nina Hellman, Ken Narasaki, Andrew Garman, Judith Ivey, Edmund Donovan. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

In plays such as A Bright New Boise, The Few, and Lewiston/Clarkston, Samuel D. Hunter has established himself as a leading commentator on our national decline; his depiction of Idaho lives ravaged by poverty, addiction, and thwarted hopes offers a devastatingly clear vision of a heartland where people wear themselves out working in fulfillment warehouses and big-box stores, families are torn apart by opioids or meth, and loneliness is an unquestioned fact of life; little wonder that his plays often feel like news bulletins from the other America. Just recently, however, one has to wonder if he isn't allowing himself to luxuriate -- only a bit -- in the multiple miseries he depicts. With its grasp of history and lengthy running time, Greater Clements may be his most ambitious work to date, and it is an occasion for stunning performances by Judith Ivey -- who has her best role in years -- and the fast-rising Edmund Donovan. But it is also a dramatically slack piece that, at times, feels almost absurdly conscientious in its effort at scrubbing away any hint of hope from its landscape. For once, the playwright presses his point a little too hard.

The action unfolds in the town of the title -- which, as the play begins, has ceased to exist. The site of a now-closed mine where men worked under brutal conditions for unimpressive wages, it has lost any plausible reason for being -- except as a magnet for wealthy Californians looking for vacation homes -- and the citizens have voted to unincorporate. This, according to Joe, a young local, means "no city services. That's why all the streetlights are out. No more money to keep the mineshaft safe for tourists. So we're shutting down the museum. Last day is Sunday."

The mine museum is operated by Maggie, Joe's mother, daughter of several generations of mineworkers. She is a naturally cheerful sort, although the circumstances of her life could hardly be bleaker. Her husband long ago decamped to Boise with his male lover. Joe, who lives with her, suffers from mental illness -- possibly schizophrenia -- which has manifested itself in instances of panic and hallucinations. He fled for a time to Anchorage, Alaska, where he ended up on the streets; now, with the aid of a psychiatrist and medication, he is getting by, if only just.

New possibilities are posed with the arrival of Billy, Maggie's high-school sweetheart, recently widowed and hoping to take up where they left off. Maggie is open to a life with Billy, even when she learns that he is dealing with his second bout of prostate cancer. Billy comes with additional baggage, however: His son, an alcoholic, can no longer care for his teenage daughter, the extraordinarily bright (and unhappy) Kel; Billy has assumed responsibility for the girl, who is prone to bouts of depression and fury far beyond those of the average adolescent.

Given its portrayal of aging boomers, their lives marked by disappointment, forced to care for troubled young people even as the surrounding community comes undone, it's not giving away anything to note that Greater Clements isn't going to end well. Further darkening the narrative are the characters' family histories, which have been shaped by, among other things, a mine fire that killed eighty-one men (including Maggie's father) and the area's dark past as the host of Japanese internment camps. (Maggie and Billy's youthful engagement was a casualty of anti-Asian prejudice, for reasons she tries not to discuss.) Add in instances of mental illness, addiction, impotence, and suicidal thoughts, and one begins to wonder how the people of Greater Clements manage to get out of bed in the morning. As always, Hunter's insights are penetrating; if only there weren't so many of them, so lovingly lingered over.

On a moment-by-moment basis, Greater Clements probes its characters and their failing way of life with surgical skill. When Maggie remonstrates with Joe for speaking about his illness in front of others, he replies, "Dr. Carl says it's healthy to talk about it, it makes me less anxious if I'm able to--" Cutting him off, she snaps, "Well, she also says that you have the intelligence of a fifteen-year-old, so maybe you should listen to when I--" and she stops, horrified at putting her rage on public display. When Kel, a student of history, tells Joe that a nearby highway was built by Japanese-American prisoners, he pauses, stunned, before saying, "That just -- really doesn't feel like it's true." Joe explains that local resentment against rich California interlopers has fueled the town's demise, thanks to the passage of a law requiring the clean-up of trash-strewn lawns: "People in town went nuts, it became this whole big thing. So, all these people who've been living here for decades, have families that go back here for like a hundred and fifty years, they all decided to dissolve the town so they can't regulate the stupid garbage on the stupid yards. It's like -- they're just burning it all to the ground."

Ivey, who hasn't had a role this challenging since I don't know when, rises magnificently to the occasion. Buried in layers of sweaters, her salt-and-pepper hair piled up like discarded balls of yarn, she finds every bit of humor in Maggie, whether staring perplexedly at a recalcitrant dustbuster and announcing, as if delivering headline news, "Well, this isn't helping at all;" indulging in a girlish giggle at being an object of romance in her mid-sixties; or angrily dismissing a meddling friend as "that dumb hen." The scene in which she and Ken Narasaki, as Billy, try out lying side by side in bed, is unexpectedly tender and charming; suddenly, they're young people again, getting away with something. Also touching is the way in which she tries to avoid admitting that her father, a racist, quashed her romance with Billy. In her finest moment, Ivey superbly handles a treacherously tricky aria in which Maggie recalls tracking down Joe in Anchorage, finding him living on the streets -- and, instead of acknowledging him, retiring to her hotel to wonder if she might leave behind her only son in favor of a less onerous life. She handles this cauterizing moment superbly, rendering Maggie's conflicting feelings -- maternal love, shame, and a terrible sense of exhaustion -- in such stark honesty that you may feel compelled to hold your breath.

Unbeknownst to Maggie, a good portion of this speech is overhead by Joe, and Donovan's stunned, silent response is equally revelatory. His whippet-thin frame lost inside a supersize T-shirt and denim shorts, his hair shaved back military-style, he speaks in a flat, declamatory style that suggests he is still giving tours of the mine. Joe is far more fragile than he first appears, however, with a violence born of terror always lurking under the surface -- a fact that the actor signals with unfailing skill, whether he is describing the spells during which he cannot see other people's faces, disclosing to Maggie the source of a scar on his hand (knowing that he is telling her more than she wants to hear), or brusquely informing Kel that, however awful her prospects, "It's not about you, it's not about your happiness, it's about you being a smart person who gets good grades so it's your, like, obligation to try."

If Ivey and Donovan make Greater Clements all but unmissable, it's also true that the play's discursive style and three-act structure sometimes prove inimical to drama. In Hunter's shorter pieces, his quiet insights and plangent tone are highly affecting; in Lewiston/Clarkston and this piece he aims for a more expansive vision. But while Lewiston/Clarkston benefited from dual narratives featuring characters forced to make wrenching choices, Greater Clements merely stretches familiar material across a broader canvas, diluting its dramatic possibilities. The play often feels like the stuff of a novel, insufficiently realized for the stage. The director, Davis McCallum, who collaborates regularly with Hunter, has also signed off on a not-entirely helpful production design. Dane Laffrey's set, depicting the first floor of the museum, has a built-in elevator located downstage, which lowers in to disclose other locations, such as Maggie's living room and bedroom -- and which may very well also obstruct one's view of the stage. The seat I occupied would be ideal at any other production in the Newhouse; I spent much of Greater Clements staring at a girder.

Aside from Nina Hellman, who grates as Maggie's tremulously pushy liberal do-gooder best friend -- a rare case of a Hunter character allowed to become a caricature -- the rest of the cast is extremely solid. Narasaki can break your heart as Billy, who routinely puts the best face on the saddest circumstances; the same is true of Haley Sakamoto as Kel, on the phone, begging her father to moderate his boozing. The always-fine Andrew Garman displays a markedly duplicitous smile as the local sheriff, who has a bit of a thing for Maggie but little use for Joe; the pat on the back he gives the younger man is loaded with unspoken aggression, as is the speech in which he explains to Joe that he will be a trial to any community that he inhabits. Kate MacCluggage wraps up the evening with an incisive eleventh-hour appearance as a sympathetic but clueless California interloper who represents the future of Greater Clements.

Other strong points include Kaye Voyce's detailed, character-observant costumes; Yi Zhao's subtly modulated lighting; and Fitz Patton's music and sound design, the latter of which vividly evokes the atmosphere several thousand feet below the surface of the earth.

The problem with Greater Clements is that, having mapped out this territory so clearly in his previous works, Hunter has left little room for surprise; we know where the characters are headed, and it's not a pretty destination -- and, in this case, the extended presentation doesn't provide additional insights or nuance. At its best, Greater Clements offers unforgettable characters, some stunning writing, and a dismayingly accurate view of a way of life that is breaking down fast -- but, even if the names were different, this is a town we've visited before. -- David Barbour

(17 December 2019)

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