By Elise Marenson
This revival of Helen Edmundson’s 1993 play The Clearing has the peculiar originality of presenting a first act slump. The second act is far more dramatic and exciting. The flat first act partially stems from the playwright’s long exposition and artificial, meant-to-be 17th Century language. But the stilted direction of Pamela Moller Kareman contributes to the fact that you don’t much care about the characters until the second act. In book terms, Act One is no page turner.
The play begins in 1652, set against the Irish genocide and removal of the Irish from their own lands, implemented by Oliver Cromwell and his brutal English armies. Robert Preston (Jakob Von Eichel) is a transplanted Englishman in love with his Irish wife Madeleine (Quinn Cassavale) who has just given birth to their son. She is aided by her devoted friend and servant Killaine Farrell (Lauren Currie Lewis). Lurking outside her manor house as she gives birth is their old friend Pierce Kinsellagh (Hamish Allan-Headley). He had hoped to marry Madeleine. As a Tory (term for the Irish fighting the English occupiers), he can’t forgive her for marrying an Englishman.
Robert and Madeleine’s friend Soloman Winter (David Licht) and his wife Susaneh Winter (Tessa Zugmeyer) are worried about a rumor that all Irish will be forcibly removed from their homes and estates and transported to Connaught, the most impoverished place in Ireland, hell on earth. Robert and Solomon travel to see the wicked governor Sir Charles Sturman (Neal Mayer). Unfortunately for Solomon, also a transplanted Englishman, he fought for the king during the Cromwellian revolution and is considered as much an enemy of Cromwell’s merciless governor as the Irish.
Act Two follows the kidnapping of Madeleine’s young servant Killaine who is thrown on board an English ship bound for Barbados, as many Irish were used as slaves and indentured servants in the West Indies. As the situation worsens and Madeleine searches for her, the once tolerant Robert takes sides with his English brethren and their marriage disintegrates.
Mr. von Eichel as the husband Robert is stiff, perhaps meant to be, and at his best when angry at his wife in the second act. Mr. Mayer is equally stiff, somewhat on one note, perhaps portraying an American’s image of an English aristocrat. Both Mr. von Eichel and Mr. Mayer stand interminably long with their arms by their sides, the fault of having no props to handle or set with which to work. Using their hands would animate them. In the first act, both men and Ms. Cassavale as Madeleine seem to fall into the trap of their accents inhibiting real behavior. The principal cast reminded me of Jon Lovitz as the thespian on SNL. Though Ms. Cassavale does become a little spitfire in Act Two. Mr. Allan-Headley as Pierce and Ms. Lewis as Killaine overcome the accents with more truthful behavior that moves us. Mr. Licht and Ms. Zugmeyer as friends of Madeleine and Robert are believable in their supporting roles. Tripling up in three small roles, (Ron Sims) does fine.
The set is puzzling. I know production budgets are low and designers like to be unique. But the permanent concave backdrop looks like hardwood flooring from Home Depot. It brings us nowhere, neither home interior, outside the manor, nor forest and leaves us without knowing where we are at certain points. It works best as the side of the ship holding Killaine. Nor are there props or basic furniture to suggest location. Another distraction is the modern dress, hoodie, poncho, and grey suit, not so original in costume design anymore.
The occupation of the Irish by the English was policy first established during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary Tudor. Elizabeth I and James I pursued it on a small scale. But it was Oliver Cromwell who elevated it to excessive cruelty with genocidal proportion. The memory is still fresh in the minds and hearts of Irish men and women. If you thought the mission of the IRA began in the 20th Century, you would be wrong. Playwright Helen Edmundson makes a valiant attempt at encapsulating the events, oral history handed down generation to generation by her own family.
The Clearing – Written by Helen Edmundson; Directed by Pamela Moller Kareman.
WITH: Hamish Allan-Headley (Pierce Kinsellagh), Quinn Cassavale (Madeleine Preston), Lauren Currie Lewis (Killaine Farrell), David Licht (Soloman Winter), Neal Mayer (Sir Charles Sturman), Ron Sims (Commissioner, Sailor, Judge), Jakob von Eichel (Robert Preston), Tessa Zugmeyer (Susaneh Winter).
Sets by Jason Bolen; costumes by Kimberly Matela; lighting by Justin Partier; composer and sound by Matt Stine; hair by Antonio Soddu; dialect coach, Leah Gabriel; production stage manager, Theresa Labreglio; press representative, Karen Greco. Produced by Theater 808. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues; For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org. Through October 23. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes with intermission.