Samuel D Hunter
Lincoln Center Theater
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E Newhouse Theatre
On the opposite side of the Atlantic, there is a growing belief that Americans are unable to write serious plays or anything running to more than about 90 minutes. Greater Clements is part of a growing canon of work, a good sample of which, including Sweat, has already come to London to great acclaim, which disproves the theory.
The play, which lasts for just over 2¾ hours, is set in fictional blue-collar town that once housed the largest mine in Idaho. More specifically, events take place in a mining museum run by Judith Ivey’s Maggie and, making use of the theatre’s hydraulics, deep underground.
The history mirrors that of equivalent communities around the world. The mile-deep mine operated for decades before a fire in 1972 killed over 80 workers, including Maggie’s father. Money being money, it reopened within a couple of months and operated until 2005 when the economics became uneconomic.
Once it closed, the town slowly expired to the point where today it has literally voted to disincorporate, much to the distress of Maggie’s neighbour Olivia. Nina Hellman in this role ensures that her character is hilariously nosy and imperiously annoying.
It may be coincidental, but living in Greater Clements, or having close associations with a resident, seems to lead close to insanity. Maggie’s son Joe, played wonderfully by Edmund Donovan, may be harmless but has serious mental health problems, having almost killed himself living on the street in Anchorage, Alaska.
More promisingly, an old flame from schooldays, Ken Narasaki’s Billy, turns up unexpectedly alongside his highly intelligent if depressive 14-year-old granddaughter Kel, played by Haley Sakamoto. He is now a romantic widower suffering from prostate cancer.
With these ingredients, and a marvellous cast impeccably directed by David McCallam, Samuel D Hunter delves deeply into a number of issues that affect America but also many other countries today.
To start with, there is the question of community and its interaction with individuals, especially when a town’s raison d’être has ceased to exist. There is also sympathy about victims of inherent racism, focussing on a Japanese community the members of which were literally interned and enslaved during the Second World War and still face prejudice decades later. Most of all, though, this play will challenge audience members thanks to the light that it shines on those suffering from mental health difficulties and the people who love and try to support them.
Particularly in the later stages, Judith Ivey proves to be a wonderful purveyor of emotional distress, while Edmund Donovan makes a naturally unsympathetic character come to life.
Greater Clements is clearly an important play that uncompromisingly addresses major issues through its created microcosmic society and one hopes that it will not only succeed in New York but also, in the fullness of time, transfer to London.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher