Samuel D. Hunter’s three-act Idaho tragedy gives Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan a chance to shine as a mother and troubled son in a town about to close down.
Samuel D. Hunter is our theater poet of Idaho and working class life. Like many of his other plays, his new one, Greater Clements, a three-act tragedy, is about lives of quiet desperation and Hunter is not very sanguine about the future of America today. In the fictional community of the title, the citizens have voted to disenfranchise the town, most of the stores on Main Street are shuttered, the street lights are being turned off, and Hunter’s heroine Maggie Bunker is about to close her family’s Dotson mine tour office and mining museum that she has run for years. However, she is expecting a visitor from her past and things may be about to change for her.
Told in leisurely style, Greater Clements is about the decline (and possible fall) of the American dream. Hunter appears to be saying that this is a long-time coming and its roots go very deep. The play begins with a flashback prologue with Maggie’s son Joe giving a tour of the mine, describing the 1972 fire on the 6,400 foot level that killed 81 men including his grandfather. However, on the weekend that the play takes place Maggie is expecting Billy, her high school beau, a Japanese-American who took her to the prom, now a widower and who is returning to visit 50 years later. Maggie, now 12 years divorced from Caleb who left her for another man, may be at loose ends but this is possibly a new beginning.
However, Maggie comes with a lot of baggage. She has recently brought back her 27-year-old son Joe from Alaska where he had run away after a charge of assault five years before. But Joe, a schizophrenic, with the social intelligence of a 15 year old, is still having hallucinations that make him avoid people. Maggie appears not to have dates since her marriage ended. And Maggie knows the real reason that her father made her break up with Billy after the prom. On the other hand, Billy has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and is bringing up his 14-year-old granddaughter Kel who is traveling with him on the way to the mock high school legislature to be held in Moscow, Idaho. His son Patrick, an alcoholic, is unable to bring up Kel. It might be a new beginning for both Maggie and Billy if they can get past their guilty consciences and all the years between them. Maggie’s friend Olivia does not see it that way: she feels that this will be one more man that Maggie will have to play caretaker for after her father, her husband and her son.
Hunter has a fine ear for dialogue, but his dramaturgy has often been obvious (cf. The Whale) and it is true here. Aside from the number of visual metaphors, the play’s structure is quite simplistic and unsophisticated : exposition in Act I, rising action in Act II, and climax in Act III. At almost three hours, the play is a bit too long for its scant content. A final coda, which brings on a new character representative of the new influx of gentrification, does not work as well as it should. It is to the credit of director Davis McCallum (a longtime collaborator with the author) and his fine cast that the play is as engrossing as it is. Much of this is due to the actors inhabiting their roles and making us care about all of them.
The luminous Judith Ivey plays Maggie Bunker, the central role, the sort of part she has played elsewhere, and she is almost too cheerful and nonchalant as her world falls apart. It is not until the final act however, that the play allows us to see how much pain she is in both as to how she has treated her son and to how things have turned out. The standout performance is given by Edmund Donovan who was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for his extraordinary work in Hunter’s Lewiston/Clarkson as a retiring young stockman with a secret to hide. As 27-year-old Joe, dealing with both his schizophrenia and people’s reactions to him, Donovan simply takes your breath away he is that convincing. From his hunched posturing to his tics like pulling at his clothes to his inability to look anyone in the eye to his hiding in dark corners, he is simply living this man’s life.
As Maggie’s high school beau who took her to the prom, Ken Narasaki is suitably retiring, low-key and gentle. A man who has lived through much, from racism to a bad marriage, to a son who has been a disappointment, and now terminal illness, he is still able to hold his head up and face each new day with equanimity. His granddaughter Kel, played by Haley Sakamoto, is a very real modern teen, who keeps a great deal inside but is very outspoken and seems to know what she wants and doesn’t want. Nina Hellman as Maggie’s neighbor and long-time friend Olivia manages to make a busybody endearing as she looks out for Maggie’s interests. Andrew Garman is amusing as Sherriff Wayne, sweet on Maggie, but going about it in all the wrong ways. However, his interactions with Joe show his softer and more understanding side.
Dane Leffrey’s ambitious setting is admirable but not all of his ideas work. First off, he has turned the stage of the Mitzi E. Newhouse into theater in the round by placing seats on the far side of the stage. For part of the time the set represents the office of Maggie’s tour and mining museum. It is also her apartment above the office which is a raised platform which appears. However, for the characters to enter or exit the apartment it is necessary for them to use the aisles to suggest the nonexistent staircases which is quite awkward. For the flashback scenes on the mine tours, a hydraulic lift comes down from above which may be realistic, but parts of the audience will have trouble seeing it. The play’s scheme will be more suitable to a film version that to the small stage of the Newhouse. Kaye Voyce’s simple realistic costumes, however, are redolent of small town America, while Yi Zhao’s atmospheric lighting is in keeping with the depressed situation in town. Fitz Patton’s sound design makes us believe we have traveled hundreds of feet down into the Dotson mine.
Samuel D. Hunter’s body of work which also includes A Bright New Boise, The Few, The Healing, and Pocatello may make him the most important regionalist now writing in America. Greater Clements, his longest play to reach New York, seems to be a new departure. Unfortunately, in this version the play seems rather diffuse and meandering, while the strong character relationships suggest that more can be done with the material. As directed by Davis McCallum, the performances particularly those of Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan make this worth seeing.
Greater Clements (through January 19, 2020)
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater of Lincoln Center Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes including two intermissions
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