Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Terrific Revival of THE CLEARING at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Jakob von Eikel and Quinn Cassavale in THE CLEARING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is set in the late seventeenth century at the time of the Salem witch trials but clearly is intended to be a metaphorical indictment of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist “witch-hunts” of the last century.  In similar fashion, Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing is set in Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century when Oliver Cromwell sought to force the Irish Catholics out of Ireland, but is meant as an indictment of the Bosnian “ethnic cleansing” of the late twentieth century (and, before that, of the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s).

The Clearing, a very powerful and beautifully written work, was first staged to rave reviews in 1993 at London’s Bush Theatre and has enjoyed frequent revivals since then.  It is currently being revived again, this time by Theater 808 at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan and, I must say, this outstanding production really is one not to be missed.

The play revolves around Robert Preston (Jakob von Eichel), the Protestant son of an English landowner who has re-settled in Ireland and his Irish Catholic wife Madeleine (Quinn Cassavale).  The couple are very much in love, she has just borne him a son, he has begun to develop his small farm, and their future appears extraordinarily bright.  Until, that is, word arrives that Cromwell’s government is about to confiscate the lands of the Irish Catholics in order to redistribute them to the soldiers of Cromwell’s army in lieu of their unpaid wages and to transplant the original Irish landowners to the much less hospitable province of Connaught.
The Prestons’ Irish Catholic neighbors, Solomon Winter (David Licht) and his wife Susaneh (Tessa Zugmeyer) are at immediate risk and they are forced to register for “transplantation.”  The Prestons, themselves, would appear to be at somewhat less risk, given Robert’s own aristocratic English background, notwithstanding his marriage to an Irish Catholic woman.  But Madeleine is not just any Irish Catholic woman: although her closest friend, Killaine Farrell (Lauren Currie Lewis) is a companion and servant in Madeleine’s home and godmother to her son, Killaine remains in close contact with their childhood friend, Pierce Kinsellagh (Hamish Allan-Hedley), a Tory Irish guerilla,.  And Madeleine, herself, still retains some contact and an affection for Pierce.

When Killaine is arbitrarily seized by English soldiers in the street and scheduled for transportation to Barbados where she would be an indentured servant, Madeleine pulls out all the stops in attempting to obtain her release, including a risky appeal to the English Governor, Sir Charles Sturman (Neal Mayer) and an attempt to purchase her release from the sailor guarding her (Ron Sims).  Robert, on the other hand, is as reluctant to stick his neck out for Killaine as he was for his friends Solomon and Susaneh, fearful that to do so would jeopardize his own position as a landowner in Ireland.  And when push comes to shove, Robert chooses to betray his own wife and friends, prompting Madeleine to take her young son and abandon Robert with the direst consequences for all involved.

The actors’ performances are superb across the board.  I was especially impressed by Quinn Cassavale who is vibrant, courageous and passionate as Madeleine and by Neal Mayer who is as coldly Mephistophelian as Sir Charles Sturman as one can possibly imagine.  But I also thought that Lauren Currie Lewis is delightful as the innocent Killaine and that Hamish Allan-Headly, as Pierce Kinsellagh, comes across as tough and single-minded in his belief in his cause.  Which is not to suggest that David Licht, Ron Sims, Jakob von Eichel and Tessa Zugmeyer don’t also play their parts with consummate skill for they certainly do.

I was a bit put off at first by the abstract simplicity of the set and the fact that all of the characters were portrayed anachronistically in modern dress.  But on further thought, I believe that those treatments were intended to emphasize the apparent inevitability and universality of the horrors of ethnic cleansing across the ages, whether in Ireland in the 1650s or Germany in the 1940s or Bosnia or Rwanda in the 1990s, and I think they succeeded in doing just that.  Indeed, the play’s set and costuming may also have been intended to remind us of the milder but still disheartening forms of xenophobia that exist today even in our own country - as evidenced, for example, by the rantings against Mexicans and Muslims by a candidate for the highest office in our land.

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