Seanachai Theatre Company
at the Theatre Building
By Carol Burbank
Seanachai Theatre Company's The Clearing is one of those rare productions that's entirely right in its larger-than-life, intensely intimate portrayal of cultural dissolution. A skillful mix of high tragedy and modernist spareness, Helen Edmundson's story of Cromwell's terrorism against royalists and Irish citizens in 17th-century Ireland is contemporary and passionate, an affecting love story told with intelligence and precision.
Edmundson is widely known in England for her work with the agitprop company Red Stockings, and in her continuing career as a playwright she's combined historical and cultural analysis with vibrant, well-crafted characters and relationships. This play is luminously written, with an unpredictable, suspenseful plot and theatrical, concise characterizations and imagery. There seems to be no waste at all. Madeleine and Robert Preston are an Irish woman and her English husband whose young marriage is gradually destroyed by Cromwell's reign of terror in Ireland. Their story reveals the economic and social sources of race hatred in grim detail, through their relationships with each other and with their friends.
Director Kevin Theis has a perfect cast. Catherine O'Connor and Michael Grant manage to convey the great love between the couple even as their growing differences tear them apart. As Madeleine's friend and servant Killaine, Kate Martin vibrates with unexpressed love, radiating wildness even as she circles her friend like a loyal satellite. Her kidnapping at the hands of the British severs her tie with Madeleine, but before Killaine leaves the country the women meet again and share their complicated new knowledge of post-Cromwell isolation and danger. The actors allow us to learn even as their characters do.
As the couple's nearest neighbors, who are British royalists, Karen Tarjan and Don Blair offer a neat and sympathetic foil to the central characters' tragedy. John Dunleavy is chilling as the British governor, whose hatred and fear allow him to convince himself and his followers that the Irish are less than animals, creatures who can be civilized only by brutality. And Coby Goss gives a strong performance as the Irish nationalist who loves and saves Madeleine.
Theis wonderfully choreographs the characters' development, using sudden transitions from stillness to flowing motion to bring into clear focus the volatile danger underlying every decision the characters make. When Madeleine confronts the governor about the kidnapping and enforced servitude of Killaine, she first attempts to be civil. But in the face of his condescension and disgust, she leaps onto a desk, towering over him, mocking and fulfilling his stereotypes about the Irish by threatening him with a curse--in the process unknowingly cursing her own future prospects. The stillness of shock and rage are also powerfully deployed, as Theis loads threats of violence into the most ordinary interactions.
Robert Whitaker's stark design combines interior and exterior spaces in one set, the building itself cut jaggedly apart at the edges as if torn apart by the same force that threatens the characters. Jeff Buckerhoff's lighting cleanly, invisibly washes each scene to establish place. Margaret Morettini's beautiful costumes reflect class, sexuality, and occupation in subtle ways, creating visual expositions of the characters. The production gains power from the integrity of the design, which places us firmly in Cromwell's Ireland but literally opens the scene up to a mythic universality.
The continuing struggle of respect and integrity against the fear and hatred that underlie scapegoating is movingly conveyed here, gently but with great force. When Madeleine's oblivious wedded bliss is shattered, she learns that boundless optimism is not a survival tool when hatred has taken root. Through her, we're able to explore the uncomfortable idea that the world and our relationships are neither as controllable nor as innocent as we'd like them to be. The miracle of the play is that we embrace and mourn Madeleine's liberal optimism even as we know it to be dangerous and impossible in her world, and perhaps in our own. Through the gradual bitter pragmatism of this love story, Edmundson and Seanachai show the sources and spasms of race hatred, the erosion of integrity that causes partners and strangers to turn against each other in the false name of survival.
Finally, a moral voice in the theater that sings with emotion, intellect, conscience, and a sense of history. The Clearing is a blessing and a warning for us all.