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The Clearing

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 11, 2016

Jakob von Eichel and Quinn Cassavale
Photo by Carol Rosegg

If you think of "the troubles" in Ireland and the nationalistic, ethnic, and religious strife that rocked that part of the world as strictly a late twentieth century phenomenon, you may be dismayed to learn that history was merely repeating itself, as evidenced in Helen Edmundson's eye-opening play The Clearing, now being given a masterful revival at 59E59 Theaters.

The Clearing was first produced in 1993, five years before the "Good Friday Agreement" that marked the official beginning of the peace process between the Irish Catholic Republicans and the British-leaning Protestants militants. But rather than set the play during those turbulent times, Edmundson focused on a much earlier but sadly similar period. That was the reign of terror promulgated on the Irish under the vicious hand of Oliver Cromwell, whose genocidal assault began with the beheading of Charles I, that last holdout in Britain for the "divine right of kings," in the middle of the seventeenth century.

A tone of dread pervades the production as the characters find themselves more and more isolated and helpless against the encroaching assault (wolves, banging and clanging noises, and gunfire are the stuff of Matt Stine's soundscape, while Justin Partier is responsible for the evocative lighting), and no one dares to venture out after dark. Yet Robert (Jakob von Eichel), a British settler in Ireland, and his Irish wife Madeleine (Quinn Cassavale), are committed to keeping things safe and quiet within their own little farmstead, as are their British neighbors Solomon (David Licht) and Susaneh (Tessa Zugmeyer). Everyone feels reasonably secure, if a bit nervous; they try to convince themselves that the rumors of war will not touch them as long as they mind their own business and stay within their own little clearings. There is even cause for celebration, for Madeleine is about to give birth to her and Robert's son.

Yet, of course, safety is an illusion. Solomon and Susaneh, despite being members of the "right" religion, are being threatened with the confiscation of their farm, and Robert's loyalty is tainted by his marriage to an Irish Catholic woman. Robert plays things cautiously, providing assistance to the British governor, Sir Charles Sturman (Neal Mayer), when he can. For her part, though, Madeleine has little patience with the British invaders; this may be the adopted home for the others, but Ireland is her native sod. Sir Charles, a suspicious and cruel functionary, already has his eye on her and her ties to the rebel Pierce (Hamish Allan-Headly). Things come to a irreversible head when Madeleine's loyal companion, the vulnerable and shy Killaine (Lauren Currie Lewis), is captured and marked for deportation as an indentured servant on a ship bound for the West Indies.

The Clearing moves steadily from its naturalistic beginning to become more expressionistic in Act II, and the characters transform into representative types. If you find yourself caught up in the very human story of the individuals being portrayed early on, you will have to give it up for the near-mythic turn the play takes as events unfold. Sir Charles becomes icily monsterous; Robert, a self-serving lump of a man; and Killaine more and more ethereal. Madeline, meanwhile, emerges as a sort of Joan of Arc as the play marches on towards a conclusion that is inevitable as the flow of history.

But even with the fading of the characters as real people, the cast, under Pamela Moller Kareman's direction, is quite strong. Ms. Cassavale is especially effective as the brave Madeleine, and she is nearly equalled by the other women in this feminist-tinged production. There is one particular (though deliberately) anachronistic element which seems oddly out of place, even given the decision to go with modern dress (costumes by Kimberly Matela). For some reason, Sir Charles periodically pulls out and sends and reads messages on a cell phone (a way, perhaps, of showing how he distances himself from having to deal with actual people?)

Despite the occasional perplexing moment, The Clearing is a thoroughly compelling play. It may be that we should enter the theater knowing all about Cromwell and the invasion of Ireland, with its confiscation of lands, the forcing of many into exile, and mass executions, but, at least to American audiences, this is quite likely to be a revelation. The connection we are being asked to make seems to be less with the much later "troubles" then it is to the current plight of civilian refugees and the "collatoral damage" that is the backdrop of ongoing warfare in many parts of the world.

The Clearing
Through October 23
59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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