The Clearing

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Lauren Currie Lewis; (bottom) Jakob von Eichel and Quinn Cassavale

 

 

by Marilyn Lester

 

High marks go to Theater 808 for tackling Helen Edmundson’s 1993 play The Clearing, a drama pulling no punches in its themes of conquest, genocide, military oppression, civil liberties, loyalty, and personal fear and sacrifice. It’s set in one of the most difficult periods of Irish history, the 1649 Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, a country with a history that’s a fraught microcosm of a bigger world picture. If for no other reason, The Clearing should be seen for its historical accuracy and relevance. When the English invaded Ireland in the 14th century they sunk their teeth in hard; and when the despotic Oliver Cromwell usurped the monarchy and re-invaded Ireland things went from bad to worse. Cromwell, ruthless to the extreme, was not only out for Irish blood but for the blood of the English who fought for the monarchy. Yet, despite its thematic importance, The Clearing is flawed. It imparts this chunk of horrible history with glancing blows, like a stone skipping over water, short-circuiting the power and gravitas of its awful and gut-wrenching circumstances.

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Jakob von Eichel and Quinn Cassavale

 

The Clearing opens with a furtive encounter. Killaine Farrell (played with overwrought semi hysteria by Lauren Currie Lewis), a young Irish girl and companion to the lady of the nearby manor, and the fugitive Irish rebel, Pierce Kinsellagh (authentically played by Hamish Allan-Headley) meet in a clearing near the great house. It’s the night a son and heir is born to the English gentryman of the manor, Robert Preston, and his Irish wife, Madeleine. This scene sets the tone of the play. The English-loathing Kinsellagh declares that the half-breed baby has poison in its blood. The naïve Killaine is on high ground – charitable and forgiving. Much of what then follows devolves from the relationship of Robert and Madeleine from loving to hateful as evil grips the land and political and economic pressures come to bear. Jakob von Eichel as Robert has the look of an English gentleman but is stuck in trying to master the subtlety of reserve, failing to imbue Robert with dimension. Quinn Cassavale’s Madeleine has more depth, but can’t seem to transcend the stereotype of the “fiery Irish redhead.” Their nemesis, the archetypically evil Sir Charles Sturman, Cromwell’s man on the scene, is played by Neal Mayer as if he’d wandered in from a Shakespearean play in the next theater and couldn’t find his way back again.

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David Licht and Tessa Zugmyer

 

Most successful in their roles were David Licht as Solomon Winter and Tessa Zugmeyer as his wife Susaneh, neighbors of the Prestons. The Winters are simple English “planters” who, 30 years before the time of the play, had been given the land grant of a farm. Licht and Zugmeyer gave wholly believable and sympathetic performances as these solid citizens who just want to farm the land and live their lives in peace. Licht and Zugmeyer strongly anchor this play which seems to want to fly off every which way. If for no other reason, their fine portrayals make The Clearing worth seeing.

 

Unfortunately, Pamela Moller Kareman’s direction doesn’t successfully elevate Edmunson’s limited and scattershot script in which the action is told in a series of scenes spanning three years in time. In taking on too broad a scope of events in The Clearing, Edmundson disempowered the profundity of its themes – and so fell short in delivering the wallop that could have been achieved (nor does the shock ending make up for the deficit). Consequently, the actors have nowhere to go to develop their characters. Acting was uneven (as were the accents), and although the pace moves along, there are no relieving light moments – no letup in heaviness and angst. Also problematic was costume design by Kimberly Matela. Modern dress proved too distracting and the accessory of a cell phone used liberally by Sir Charles was jarring.

 

Ron Sims as several supporting characters was yeoman in his performance. The set, a simple wooden upstage wall, by Jason Bolen, made logical use of the small performance space. Original compositions and sound design by Matt Stine provided properly moody underscoring. Lighting design is by Justin Partier. Production stage manager is Theresa Labreglio.

 

The Clearing plays through October 23, Tuesday- Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3:30 pm

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, 212-279-4200, www.59e59.org

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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