Theater review by Adam Feldman
In the gorgeously clear-eyed and sorrowful Greater Clements, Samuel D. Hunter digs deep. The play begins far belowground in an abandoned mine where 81 men once died in a fire, and what remains of the rural Idaho hamlet above it is no less bleak: a ghost town that has all but given up the ghost. In a collective fit of pique against wealthy invaders from California, the locals have voted to unincorporate their municipality, leaving them without collective services. Among those affected by this change is the forthright Maggie (Judith Ivey), whose small mine-related museum is being forced to close down. A chance for Maggie to escape appears in the form of Billy (Ken Narasaki), her kindly Japanese-American high-school sweetheart from 50 years earlier, now dying of cancer and eager for a second chance at love. But then what would happen to her adult son, Joe (Edmund Donovan), who is at risk of falling back into the psychosis that has derailed his life for years?
Chekhovian in spirit but utterly modern in its concerns, Greater Clements is suffused with Hunter’s signature combination of gentleness and despair. The playwright immerses us in the world he has imagined, and gives us time to marinate in it; the play, which has two intermissions, is nearly three hours long. It’s not boring for a moment, though, because it is so rich with nuance and quiet dread. Ivey finds the ideal snag in every line—the perfect place to pivot a thought—and Donovan, who starred in Hunter’s Lewiston/Clarkston last year, is extraordinary at capturing both the scariness of Joe’s mental illness and his own fear and shame about it.
Under the sensitive direction of frequent Hunter collaborator Davis McCallum, the supporting cast helps keep the tone varied: Nina Hellman as Maggie’s chatterbox friend, Andrew Garman as a concerned local cop, Haley Sakamoto as Billy’s disaffected teenage granddaughter. You can’t always see them—Dane Laffrey’s complicated set creates sightline obstructions no matter where you’re seated—but you can feel them. The people in this play mean well, and your heart leaps out to them even at the risk of being crushed. With painful honesty, Hunter shows us a part of America from which we might rather avert our gaze: a town with no prospects, inhabited by the tired custodians of histories and families that have reached the end of the line.
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center (Off Broadway). By Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Davis McCallum. With Judith Ivey, Edmund Donovan. Running time: 2hrs 55mins. Two intermissions.