The Clearing - Hub Theatre Company
The Clearing – Hub Theatre Company
Review by James Wilkinson
The Clearing is presented by Hub Theatre Company. Written by Helen Edmundson. Directed by Daniel Bourque. Set Design: Cassie Chapados. Lighting Design: Chris Bocchiaro. Sound Design: Ian Conway. Costume Design: Erica Desautels and Nancy Ishara. Props Designer: Justin Lahue.
For the first ten minutes of Hub Theatre Company’s production of The Clearing I had a sinking feeling in my gut that I was convinced would be with me the whole evening. I had purposefully gone into the theater knowing as little as possible about the plot of Helen Edmundson’s play, so I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into. That sinking feeling began when the lights went down and a projection revealed that we were stepping into 17th century Ireland and got worse when actress Lily Steven ran onstage in period costume and actor Jon Vellante began speaking in a thick Irish brogue. It’s clear that the design team has gone all out for the production (more on that in a bit), but in my own humble experience, historical narratives tend to run dry on stage, featuring characters and dialogue that’s practically upholstered. So when a production telegraphs that we’re going to be traveling long ago and far away, I usually start looking for the exit and wondering if I can make a break for it.
Shame on me, then, for holding onto such prejudices (at this point I should really know better), because after those first ten minutes, after the play gets through character and setting introductions, Hub Theatre’s production begins to get to work on winning you over. It begins to reveal the heartbeat hidden under that period dress. That’s what gets you. Director Daniel Bourque and his team turn in a remarkably assured and buoyant piece of theater. There hardly seems to be an action or a movement that hasn’t been properly thought out. Thank God that they did as the play has cover a fair amount of history for the audience. That forethought not only prevents the production from getting bogged down in details but it also manages to flesh the world of the play so that we feel every move the actors make.
The individual characters of The Clearing are fictional, but the larger historical events it plays with are drawn from world history: the English oppression of the Irish people, as led by Oliver Cromwell. The play opens with the birth of the first child of the Madeline and Robert Preston (Brashani Reece and Matthew Zahnzinger). She’s a native of Ireland; he’s a transplanted Englishman who came to the country when there was no way for him to make his way in his homeland. The birth of a new son is a happy occasion for the couple, but there’s also trouble in the air. Neighbors have heard rumors of the English passing laws that will force them to give up their homes. At first those rumors will be dismissed as just that, but they’ll become a reality all too soon. We’ll watch as Cromwell’s rule rips apart both this family and the community around them.
Prior to the show, I was unfamiliar with this particular chapter in English/Irish history. I suspect that many audience members will be in the same boat as I was and that this is probably why Edmundson wrote the play in the first place. Her script manages to provide a lot of history without feeling like a lesson, though I do think that the fact that she has to provide that information does tie her hands a bit. There’s so much for her to cover and she has to stick to a larger historical narrative, so you kind of get the sense that the dialogue gets the chance to break free and fly out unencumbered.
Given that I nearly held the technical elements of the show against it, (again, my fault), I feel it’s only fair to point out that, yes, the show’s design team has pulled out all of the stops and created something absolutely picturesque. Cassie Chapados’ set provides an infusion of the greenery of the natural world. Erica Desautels and Nancy Ishara’s costumes are ravishing. Everything feels very particular, very precise. It even shows up in Bourque’s staging where the actors move about the space with such a sense of confidence in what they’re doing.
The entire acting team is excellent. Jeff Gill is absolutely magnetic as the show’s chief villain, Sir Charles Sturman. Each time he walks on stage his presence seems to absorb all of the attention in the room. He sort of slithers around the stage, wheezing and growling, somehow able to make raising a hand feel like a power move. He makes us realize the true horror of the people like him is that they genuinely believe that their hatred is in the service of the greater good. Matthew Zahninger does a very peculiar thing as Robert Preston. As the character is slowly stripped of everything he values, Zahninger appears to slowly hollow himself out until the end when there’s nothing left but the husk of the man he was.
You won’t find any grandstanding in The Clearing, either in the play or in Hub Theatre’s production. In a way, it takes a hands-off approach to history. It presents its story without any sort of attempt to draw a direct correlation with any other modern day event (I mean, other than the general ways that all genocides are similar). Nor does the play end with any sort of striking “never again” type of statement on the atrocities it depicts. Instead, (in a coda scene that struck me as totally unnecessary…but since it provides the show’s title, I digress…), it ends with a stalemate between the couple that started off the play. I think that it’s the relationships between people that Edmundson wants us to focus on. In a world where such atrocities happen and such a power imbalance exists between these two people, how could their story end in anything other than disintegration?
The Clearing is presented by Hub Theatre Company at First Church in Boston, April 5-20, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website:: www.hubtheatreboston.org