By Joseph Hurley
THE CLEARING by Helen Edmundson. Blue Light Theater Company at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, Broadway at 76th Street (thru October 31).
Irish history, modern and otherwise, is so subtle and so complicated that relatively few Americans, even of Irish descent, seem able to keep the details in proper order. One bit of evidence attesting to the extreme elusiveness of the facts, dates and place names might be that, in reviewing the Abbey Theatre’s recent revival of Brian Friel’s 1973 drama, "The Freedom of the City," which visited Manhattan in July as part of Lincoln Center’s Festival 99, the New York Times, the city’s revered "newspaper of record," not once, but twice, declared, in large sub-head type, that the play’s action was taking place in Belfast.
Not true; "The Freedom of the City" is set in Derry.
Therefore, it perhaps comes as no surprise that "The Clearing," an earnest but clumsy historical drama by a young British writer, Helen Edmundson, set in County Kildare in a period reaching from 1652 to 1655, seems as alien as it might if its action were specifically located on Jupiter or Mars.
Produced this past spring in Connecticut by the Hartford Stage company with a nearly identical cast, "The Clearing" has been produced for a limited, month-long run by the Blue Light Theater company in the group’s new home at 76th Street and Broadway, the site of what had long been the venue of the Second Stage Company, now relocated to a refurbished space on Eighth Avenue near 43rd Street.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
The subject underlying Edmundson’s play is the damaging and enduring impact Oliver Cromwell had on the country, despite the fact that his tenure there was only something in the area of nine months.
Cromwell, who came to Ireland as a "lord lieutenant," or chief governor, remains offstage, since the playwright’s intention, apparently, was to show the effect Cromwell’s reign had on Irish landowners, in this case the British-born Robert Preston, dispatched to superintend his father’s holdings, and his spirited, somewhat reckless Irish wife, Madeleine.
Certain aspects of "The Clearing" almost inevitably invite comparison to Arthur Miller’s 1953 success, the frequently revived drama, "The Crucible." Set in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, Miller’s play also concerns an apparently devoted married couple whose bond is challenged and even compromised by outside, inherently political events.
Edmundson’s play, set a mere four decades earlier, in a roughly comparable colonial situation, shares with Miller’s work a marriage in which the wife is more self-possessed, more daring, and probably more intelligent than her mate. What it doesn’t share is Miller’s astonishing knack for making the people of a remote time and place rise up and walk on the stage, all the while speaking a language which feels completely natural and right, neither anachronistic nor overly "literary."
Playwright Edmundson is a Manchester University graduate perhaps best known in her native England for her work in feminist theater and for her stage adaptations of such classics as Anna Karenina," "The Mill on the Floss" and "War and Peace." Edmundson appears, on the strength of the evidence available onstage in the Blue Light production, directed by Tracy Brigden, not to have mastered the technique at which the redoubtable Miller excels.
The people of "The Clearing" seem to change from scene to scene, to the extent that the Madeleine of the final moments, despite an appealing and energetic performance from the promising Alyssa Bresnahan, seems to have abandoned, or perhaps forgotten, the feelings she had expressed so eloquently only a few scenes earlier.
Similarly, the play’s only other Irish-born female character, Killaine Farrell, sweetly and earnestly played by Patricia Dunnock, seems at some moments to be the heroine’s friend, at other points her servant, and at others still perhaps even her former lover, while the position occupied by Madeleine’s husband, Robert, (the gifted Michael Countryman, new to the play in the present production), wanders all over the map, as he tries to placate his fellow Britons on one hand, and his decidedly headstrung wife on the other.
Edmundson, to be fair, tries strenuously and admirably to be evenhanded, surrounding the Prestons with a villainous English overseer, Sir Charles Sturman (Sam Catlin), a loyal English neighbor, Solomon Winter (Joseph Costa), the latter equipped with an outspoken British wife, oddly spelled Susaneh (played with a strong, emphatic edge by Sandra Shipley).
Despite the author’s good intentions, the characters of "The Clearing" never really bestir themselves, never really lift up from the page, never really come close to assuming the little quirks and oddnesses which help to make characters memorable, and cause them to live in the collective mind of the audience long after the fall of the final curtain.
Instead, they tend to articulate precisely what is on their minds and in their hearts at any given moment, with the lamentable result that "The Clearing" comes to resemble an old-fashioned classroom film "transplanted," to employ a term the author uses rather frequently, to the stage..
If Cromwell’s activities in Ireland, appropriation of lands owned by Catholics, "transplantation," of women, children, and even entire families regarded as "troublesome," did not precisely inaugurate the strife that endures to this day, they certainly intensified the problem and heightened the level and tone of the conflict.
Ken Hughes’ 1970 film, "Cromwell," in which Richard Harris played the title role and Alec Guinness appeared as King Charles I, is sometimes described in reference books as having "no human feeling underneath," a comment which would seem to apply to "The Clearing" just as easily. Perhaps the subject is somehow terminally resistant to conventional dramatization.