The Review: Lincoln Center Theatre’s Greater Clements
I’m writing this review days and days after seeing Greater Clements at the Lincoln Center Theatre. I don’t feel too guilty though about the amount of time that has passed, as the seeing of this show was prolonged to such a great length that I ended up seeing it on the weekend that it was closing. But so thankful for the diligence of the press team who got me in after numerous mishaps. I initially had press tickets for a performance before Christmas, weeks before the closing, but on the day one of the main actors called out sick, so I was shifted to another performance just after Christmas, right before I took off for my holiday two week break. I was very excited to see it, as this detailed small town descent into loss and hopeful love is written by the thoughtful and smart as a whip Samuel D. Hunter, the same man who wrote one of my favorite theatrical experiences of 2018, Lewiston/Clarkson presented at Rattlestick Theatre. His sense of the human condition and their fiery collisions, fueled by damaged attachment, love, compassion and problematic dysfunction, is burnt deep with authentic desire for connection, chiselled with pain and need.
But it was not meant to be that night either. I arrived, sat down, and the drama begun, taking us down deep into the depths of a former mining town’s disintegration. Act one ran smooth, but act two began with an announcement that the same lead was stepping out, and the understudy was bravely coming on to finish out the story. It rocked the boat, this break, but it took a third try to get it all right, and boy, was I glad I returned.
Within the grand scope of this large play; three hours, three acts, with two intermissions, Hunter (The Harvest) focuses in on a problematic young man, Joe, played in almost unrecognizable form by the impressive Edmund Donovan (Rattlestick’s Lewiston/Clarkson, Hulu’s “High Fidelity“), who has returned to the town of Clements, Idaho after his mother, Maggie, dynamically and playfully portrayed by the powerful Judith Ivey (Broadway’s Hurlyburly) travels to Alaska to find him and bring him home. He has a special kind of problem and disorder, one that unnerves even the maternal Maggie. It’s a disorder of the mind’s eye where people’s faces abstractly drip down into something he calls ‘duck-face’, making it almost impossible for him to maintain composure and be present. His strange affliction got him into intense trouble in this small town many years ago , and caused the one-man police force, embodied by the solid Andrew Garman (LCT’s Admissions) to keep his eye on the young man, almost in a manner that suffocates.
But the true heart-squeeze lies in one of the most compelling mother/son dynamics that I’ve seen for a long long time. It’s one that is engraved dark with love and determination. Caked with the mud of discomfort and mistrust, the two actors do a spectacular job drawing us into their problematic combative dance of push and pull. Ivey, soars high above the small town with her effortless balancing act of being worn out, tired, yet hopeful, despite her age and her complications, having more denialed determination than dread. Donovan achieves true greatness masking his form and contorting it into something that hurts to look at (I only really recognized his tall athletic frame at the curtain call). He resembles something like a beaten-down hound dog who wants so much to behave, but somehow finds it impossible to get it just right, and too scared to run away. His whirling monologue that revolves around the making of numerous ashtrays is heartbreakingly real, and smokes of true desperation, confusion, and deadly frustration. The actor’s achievement is the thing that takes this compelling piece and rides it up high and strong while simultaneously descending down into the depths of his discomfort.
In what was once a thriving mining town, a convoluted vote by its residents; some homegrown locals mixed with high incomed Californian summer cottage owners, have killed Clements with a quick cut to the mined bone. The tragic death of its status as an official town stings strong as the connection to its roots and tunnels are deeply meaningful to the townies, mainly because of the generations that have worked down in the mine and died in those same deep tunnels. This includes Maggie’s father in a historic deadly blaze years and years ago and burned alive so many. The epic vote bites down hard, taking down not just the streetlights, but most of the businesses in the now defunct community, including Maggie’s museum and tour company, upsetting many, including their nosey neighbor, activist, and friend, Oliva, fascinatingly well played by Nina Hellman (TFANA’s Pericles).
Maggie and her son, when he was younger, used to take people down inside the former mine for a historic tour, one that is played out in the first scene. It echos with a forceful darkness and dampness, thanks to the compelling set design by Dane Laffrey (Broadway’s Fool for Love) with perfectly orchestrated costumes by Kaye Voyce (LCT’s After the Blast), lighting by Yi Zhao (LCT’s Pipeline) and original music and sound by Fitz Patton (Broadway’s Choir Boy). The lowering and raising of a platform gives off the perfect elevator structuring adding depth to the mine, but awkwardly blocks moments and faces pretty much no matter where you are seated. It does work though when it becomes the outdoor ceiling, the starry sky, the bedroom floor, or the deep and dark mine closing in on itself. In those scenes, the described heat floats out, burning our skin and filling us with its wonder and its deathly hollowness.
Directed precisely by Davis McCallum (LCT’s The Harvest), the history of the mining town and all that it stole from this family, particularly the historic fire, enriches their plight and their struggle. Maggie sees a light at the end of the long duck faced tunnel though, filled out in the form of high school sweetheart, Billy, diligently portrayed by Ken Narasaki (Boston Court’s A Winter People). He has stopped by, optimistically to reconnect and hopefully be reborn in the grace-filled eyes of Maggie. This time, he thinks, it will all work out, even if the situation is cancerous. Tagging along is his grand-daughter Kel, beautifully portrayed by Haley Sakamoto (BTW’s Macbeth) who is suffering from her own parental dysfunctions that need to be unwound. The budding friendship and troublemaking between this young rebel and Donovan’s deeply sympathetic Joe pushes the piece with scared alarm deeper into the drama, maybe even overflowing the edge. This is particularly true when Japanese Internment Camps and racial prejudice are tossed down the proverbial mine shaft into the mix of complicated darkness.
That’s not to say it all doesn’t resonate. The second attempt with the understudy stepping in didn’t impact my emotional heart anywhere close to how it did when the full intended cast came together that third time. It’s utterly fascinating, but the third viewing with all of the actors attending was surprisingly heart wrenching, even when weekender Mona, diligently portrayed by Kate MacCluggage (TFANA’s Much Ado About Nothing), wanders in on the museum’s last day looking for a slice of nostalgia and a tour. The pain and utter sadness she witnesses, whether she realizes it or not, wrecked havoc on my already saddened heart. So take note, third time was a true charm, and I’m thankful that I gave it a full college try returning to Greater Clements to dig in to what this show was meant to be. It’s original cast does it proud, and the journey down into the dangerous hot tunnel is one not to be missed – and I say this, sadly, cause you have, if you never made it to the mine before it closed.