Greater Clements

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Photo: T. Charles Erickson Review
Legacies of the past connect and collide throughout Samuel D. Hunter’s ambitious, multi-layered “Greater Clements,” now on view at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. Hunter is not content to write what could be a simple Ingean drama about Maggie, a 65-year-old woman (the magnificent Judith Ivey) readjusting to life with her mentally ill 27-year-old son Joe (an alternately sympathetic and terrifying Edmund Donovan) – although that storyline nonetheless remains the heart of this three-act play.

Instead, he stuffs the work with socioeconomic commentary, tales of past racial discrimination and police brutality and more in order to create an admittedly rich tapestry, albeit one that threatens to unravel at almost any second. Indeed, the show’s many strands not only overwhelm us at times, but distract us from the narrative that interests us the most.

In Ivey’s flawless turn, we realize why the down-to-earth yet spirited Maggie is one of the most beloved residents of Clements, a tiny, depressed “town” in Idaho which has, in fact, decided to “unincorporate” in order not to be governed by the rules proposed by the rich Californians who now make it a summer residence. True, her family has been part of the town’s fabric for generations; her grandfather and father both worked in the nearby mine – the latter having lost his life in a deadly fire there. She also now runs the soon-to-be-closed museum commemorating the mine (located at the bottom of her house) and was the mine’s tour guide, as was Joe before his rather strange psychotic illness caused him to flee to Alaska, from where Maggie has recently “rescued” him after many years. But it’s her inner qualities of basic goodness that shine, like a miner’s headlight, time and again.

With all of her reasons to stay in Clements vanishing, the long-divorced Maggie is considering moving away to cohabitate with her former childhood sweetheart Billy (the mild-mannered Ken Narasaki); their marriage plans were thwarted 50 years ago because Billy was Japanese-American, and Maggie’s father, a World War II veteran, strenuously objected to the union. Now, he’s widowed by not exactly unencumbered; he has a serious case of prostate cancer and is raising his spunky, unhappy 14-year-old granddaughter Kel (a thoroughly believable Haley Sakamoto) rather than leaving her in the care of her alcoholic father.

Much of the play concerns Maggie wondering if the move is the best thing for the still-troubled Joe, and, to a lesser extent, whether she’s even the kind of person who can put her own needs above others. For his part, Billy, who expresses only the occasional doubt, is so enamored of his opportunity for a second chance with her he barely refuses to acknowledge any of the challenges of this arrangement.

Dissuading Maggie from going, in the guise of loving concern, is nosy long-time neighbor Olivia (a shrill Nina Hellman), even though Joe “attacked” her much younger son some years earlier. And town cop Wayne (a very fine Andrew Garman) also thinks it would be better for Joe and Maggie to stick around. Why? As he explains in an excellent mini-monologue, Wayne has chosen not to become his own father, a cop who once severely beat up another mentally-challenged Clements local (obviously suffering from PSTD), and fears police in the town Maggie wants to move to would not be so sympathetic. Cleverly, though, it’s unclear until very late in the third act what decision Maggie will make, even after an unexpected event occurs that could alter her course of action.

One can commend, in part, director Davis McCallum and set designer Dane Laffrey’s decision to mirror the story by creating a complex, moving set that shows the many layers of Maggie’s house. Unfortunately, that set requires the use of four tall poles (which I think also mirror the idea of the mineshaft) which block the view of many in the audience, even those in prime center aisle seats. Like parts of the play itself, the set is one more big idea that’s not ultimately necessary. In fact, a little bit of less (of everything) would greatly benefit “Greater Clements.”
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Edmund Donovan, Andrew Garman, Nina Hellman, Judith Ivey, Kate MacCluggage, James Saito, and Haley Sakamoto

Open/Close Dates
Opening 12/9/2019
Closing Open-ended

Theatre Info
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023