Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson Haley Sakamoto and Edmund
Donovan in 'Greater Clements'
By Marc Miller
Most new plays these days, it seems, are either an hour and a half or three
hours. There’s not much in between. Greater Clements, Samuel D. Hunter’s
drama, is the latter, and it might work better if it were the former. Hunter, a
chronicler of anomie in Idaho—his plays include Pocatello, A Bright
New Boise, and Lewiston/Clarkson—knows his subject well and conjures
up some potent commentary on the forces eating away at traditions and the
economy in the American Northwest, as well as some affecting family drama. But
he sure draws things out.
It's an elaborate production for the Mitzi Newhouse, with a set by
Dane Laffrey dominated by a platform that hangs out of sight above the stage or
drops down as needed. It’s also a metaphor for the elevator in the adjacent
silver mine. For over a century the mine was the lifeblood of the titular town,
a venue for hot, back-breaking, dimly lit, and far from safe employment. A 1972
fire killed 81 workers, but the mine quickly reopened and struggled for a few
more decades, finally closing in the mid-Aughts. Clements has been slowly dying
since, and the main street is now, in 2017, mostly boarded up, except for the
café and the mine museum, run by Maggie (Judith Ivey), a tired sixty something
local with a troubled, unstable son, Joe (Edmund Donovan). Does that seem like
enough plot? It’s just the beginning.
What a lot of history Hunter confers on this sad moment in time.
The museum is about to close, a victim of both its dubious tourist appeal and
the fate of Clements, which has just voted to unincorporate itself. That
becomes the source of a rift between Maggie and her friend Olivia, overacted by
Nina Hellman, a busybody who fills her empty hours by spreading gossip. A
years-ago conflict between the two involved Joe beating up on Olivia’s unseen
son, which may have contributed to Joe’s untethered emotions. Donovan, in a
blazing performance, conveys from the start that Joe isn’t quite right, rushing
his words, begging approval from those around him, and acting with his whole
body. Watch him slash the air with his hands to make a point, or crumple in
despair at his inability to change. Joe has, we learn, the social intelligence
of a 15-year-old, and at 27 he has a lot of past and no future.
He’s good at one thing: Giving
tours of the mine. And here’s a willing audience, in one of several unlikely
coincidences Hunter sets up: Kel (Haley Sakamoto), the granddaughter of Billy
(Ken Narasaki), a Japanese-American flame of Maggie’s from high school who just
happens to be passing through. He’s taking Kel to “mock legislature,” a school
exercise where students propose state laws, and he’d like to rekindle that
flame with Maggie, the racial tensions of a half-century ago having cooled.
T. CHARLES ERICKSON
Judith Ivey, Ken Narasaki,
The teenage Kel is smart and morose, dealing badly with an
impossible alcoholic dad and the pressures of too many expectations from loved
ones. So when Joe tells her about the long-closed, mile-deep mine tunnel, she
sees a way out of everything. The second act (there are three) ends on an
ominous portent about that, which quickly turns anticlimactic in Act Three.
There’s still more backstory, but you don’t have to know it all.
And Hunter didn’t have to write it all. Does it really matter that Maggie’s
husband left her years ago for another man? Does Olivia have to be so annoying?
We find out that Maggie has a sister almost at the end, why has Hunter been
keeping her from us (or why did he bother putting her in)? And when you
establish up front that Maggie’s phone is faulty, you have to pound it to get a
signal and even then it doesn’t always work, don’t you just know that that’s
going to be a plot point at a crucial moment?
The most interesting character, by far, is Joe—he’s simultaneously
unpredictable, goodhearted, and scary, with a medical condition I never heard
of and find hard to believe—and Donovan fleshes him out masterfully. Joe’s
fate, however, doesn’t come as a surprise. Ivey, away too long, is an
anguished, sensitive Maggie, protective of her difficult son and not much
concerned with anything else. Billy’s something of a cipher, slow to anger and
over-affable, and Narasaki can’t do much with him. Sakamoto gets Kel’s teenage
impatience and self-absorption, and there are worthy contributions from Andrew
Garman, as Clements’s entire police department, who longs for the good old days
when troublemakers could just be
slapped around, and Kate MacCluggage, as a last-minute museum
visitor who serves to wrap things up.
Nina Hellman, Judith Ivey, Ken Narasaki, Edmund
Donovan and Andrew Garman
“Everything’s changing, the town’s falling apart,” laments Olivia, and that’s a
fair summary. A lot going on here: Economic decline, families striving to stay
just this side of functional, the aftermath of racism, the intricate
relationships in a small, plain-spoken town, the consequences of severe
emotional duress. It just has too much air baked into it, too many elements
that don’t lead anywhere. Davis McCallum directs it efficiently, with some
overlapping dialogue that at least cuts the running time, Kaye Voyce’s costumes
are suitably Target off-the-rack, and Yi Zhao’s lighting is quite
It's not like Hunter doesn’t make us care, but his ambitions do
fall a little short. He seems to have envisioned an epic look at social and
economic forces sweeping the plains, and he achieved an overlong situation
drama. It’s been such a good season so far for new plays—The Inheritance
and Linda Vista and The Sound Inside and the remarkable Halfway
Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, for starters—and maybe in a lesser season Greater
Clements would resonate more. But much of the time it just lies there. One
theatergoer was heard to remark as she exited the Newhouse, “Well, that could
have used some editing.” Bingo.
Review posted December 2019
Playing at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th Street
Playing through January 18
Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes