Friday, January 3, 2020

Greater Clements - Starting Over Is Not For Everyone

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Just about everybody has wished for a second chance at least once in their lives. The opportunity to undo a certain decision, change the direction of one's life or simply move on from the past. So it is in Samuel D. Hunter's fascinating and often bleak new play, Greater Clements. A place where possibilities and emptiness walk hand in hand. The show now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center.

In 2017, Maggie (Judith Ivey), a 65 year-old widow, runs the local historical museum in the former mining town of Clements, Idaho. A place which, for all intents and purposes, has ceased to exist. Having lost its major industry with the closing of the mine 12 years earlier, Clements has seen a major influx of new arrivals - mostly from California - in recent times. These newcomers are on the verge of becoming plentiful enough to determine the town's legislative agenda going forward. As a result, the remaining Clements old-timers, in the ultimate form of rebellion against change, chose to unincorporate the town in a recently completed, highly charged vote.

As Maggie prepares for the closing of the museum, in the wake of the aforementioned decision, she learns that her old high school sweetheart Billy (Ken Narasaki), with whom she has remained in touch over the years, will be passing through town with his 14-year old granddaughter Kel (Haley Sakamoto). That Maggie and Billy still have feelings for each other is immediately obvious, raising the possibility the two might start a new life together.

             Judith Ivey as "Maggie" in Greater Clements. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

For Maggie however, things are not as simple as just packing up and leaving. She also has her son Joe (Edmund Donovan), to consider. Joe has struggled with mental illness for many years, and has recently moved back in with his mom. A somewhat jumpy sort, Joe used to take great pride in giving tours of the now-disused mine. Including describing a fire there in 1972 which claimed the lives of 81 miners, including his own grandfather; Maggie's dad.

Running through this story is the idea of rebirth and beginning again. Be it with Maggie and Billy and a new chance at romance, or the dogged efforts of Maggie's friend and town busybody Olivia (Nina Hellman) to overturn the unincorporation, and thus start to put the community back together. Though as it becomes quite clear, sometimes one is simply carrying too much emotional baggage to be able to move on. Which also makes it rather ironic that the one character who has the most possibilities in their future doesn't want any of them. At least not until a dose of reality is delivered from a most unexpected source.

Another very strong element in the story is the way many of the characters come off as both sincere and pragmatic. Its as if their very words are weighed down with the experiences of the past. This clearly visible in Maggie's various conversations with both Billy and Olivia.

        (L-R) Judith Ivey and Ken Narasaki in Greater Clements.  Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Ivey gives a very powerful performance as Maggie. She being one of those dependable people always ready to lend a hand to those in need. At the same time, Maggie carries a deep seated guilt stemming from those times she did put herself first. As well as an undercurrent of anger when forced to deal with matters she's since come to terms with. Her scenes with Billy are especially sweet and touching as this normally guarded soul tries to balance her needs and responsibilities both as a woman and a mother.

Donovan is thoroughly dynamic as the thirty-something Joe. He showing the character to be both a manic and officious sort, while continually trying to hold himself together; both for his sake and his mom. Yet despite all the progress he has made, via medication and psychiatric visits, there are those who, for various reasons, will always judge him for what he has done before. A conversation between Joe and Wayne (Andrew Garman), the county sheriff, being particularly telling in this regard.

Narasaki is fine as Billy, a gentle sort and a realist who just wants to enjoy whatever time he has left with someone he cares about. Hellman is both passionate and annoying as Olivia, a woman who wants things to go back to the way they were. The vote to unincorporate the town and the apparent heated debate over the question can almost be a stand-in for the feelings Americans had over the 2016 election, and the upcoming one in 2020 in regards to who they support and why.

(background L to R) Nina Hellman, Ken Narasaki, Andrew Garman; (center) Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan in Greater Clements. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Direction by David McCallum is strong for the most part, though things could have been a bit more focused at points, with certain sections of the play tending to meander. It would also have been nice to see a bit more backstory for the characters of Wayne and Olivia. Plus the way the final scene is set up - while also introducing a completely new character - has the effect of taking away some of the play's overall impact.

Dane Laffrey's sets, which include the museum, Maggie's living quarters, and the mine itself, are excellent. As are Yi Zaho's lighting effects and the sound design work by Fitz Patton.

A deeply absorbing tale about people and places bypassed by time and circumstances, Greater Clements is quite the powerful work indeed.

Featuring: Edmund Donovan (Joe), Judith Ivey (Maggie), Nina Hellman (Olivia), Ken Narasaki (Billy), Haley Sakamoto (Kel), Andrew Garman (Wayne), Kate MacCluggage (Mona).

Greater Clements

by Samuel D. Hunter

Sets: Dane Laffrey
Costumes: Kate Voyce
Lighting: Yi Zhao
Original Music and Sound: Fitz Patton
Stage Manager: Roxana Khan
Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas
Dramaturgs: Anne Cattaneo, John Baker
Casting: Daniel Swee
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman

Directed by Davis McCallum

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th Street
Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, including two intermissions
Closes: January 19, 2020

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