By Erik Nikander
The Clearing pulls off an impressive challenge for a historical drama: it examines humanity’s weakness in the face of prejudice in a way that is not only faithful to the time period but unmistakably timely.
The Clearing by Helen Edmundson. Directed by Daniel Bourque. Staged by the Hub Theatre Company at the First Church Boston, 66 Marlborough Street, Boston, MA, through April 20.
From the time of Cromwell to the era of Trump, bigotry and hatred have clung to humanity like diseased ticks. Fear of “the other” has been stirred up, exploited, and weaponized to excuse unthinkable actions in our own time, as well as in the era explored by Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing. Set in the 1650s, the play dramatizes cross-cultural resentment in the aftermath of the Irish War of Confederacy, and her cultural study resonates to a frightening degree with nationalistic tendencies in America today. Relevance is not the play’s only merit: this clear-eyed study of human nature is informed by a poignant sense of tragedy. Director Daniel Bourque and the Hub Theatre Company’s team of artists accent the play’s strengths, but the production, as a whole, is hampered by issues both minor and serious.
English gentleman Robert Preston (Matthew Zahnzinger) and his Irish wife Madeleine (Brashani Reece) are celebrating a the birth of their first child. Madeleine’s longtime friend Killane (Lily Steven) adores the boy right away. Their friend Pierce (Jon Vellante) is more skeptical, disgusted by the baby’s half-English parentage. Neighboring couple Solomon (George Page) and Susaneh Winter (Robin Abrahams) visit with troubling news: because the Winters, despite their English heritage, took the side of the Irish rebels, the government may confiscate their land. The next day, Solomon and Robert visit Sir Charles Sturman (Jeff Gill), who confirms their worst fears. With their lives and livelihoods at stake, Edmundson’s characters struggle to navigate the fraught national crisis they find themselves caught up in.
The preceding summary only covers the play’s first few scenes. The Clearing is on the plot-heavy side, dense with historical context. Still, even though the play’s detailed depiction of a moment in history feels overwhelming at times, Edmundson pulls off, for the most part, the balancing act the tale requires. Drama wins out, despite the threat that the script could easily become bogged down in the intricacies of Cromwell-era politics. It eludes that fate partly because of the clarity and power of Edmundson’s character writing. All of the characters, even the bigoted bureaucrat Sir Charles Thurman, are rendered with believable personalities, and their inner conflicts are as fascinating as their external struggles.
The Clearing is more or less an ensemble piece, so interweaving the strengths of the cast members is crucial. Most of the performances are strong, with Zahnzinger standing out as Robert. His suggestion of the moral weakness that lurks under the surface of a seemingly noble man is riveting and heartbreaking. Plus, his English accent never feels less than fully natural and lived-in. Lily Steven portrays Killane as a slightly eccentric innocent caught up in a traumatic conflict. The result is deeply affecting, as is George Page’s portrayal of Solomon’s well-meaning but helpless nature. On the other hand, Jeff Gill makes Charles Sturman appropriately hate-able — even if the character comes off as cartoonish.
Brashani Reece’s turn as Madeleine is bold and passionate, if slightly one-note. She is effective at expressing the character’s emotional resolve as well as her deep love for her homeland. Yet the actor rarely seems to let her guard down, even when it is called for, in Madeleine’s most vulnerable moments. The only performance that feels truly out of place is Robin Abrahams as Susaneh; she comes across as oddly flat and dispassionate, even in highly charged scenes. Also, these performers needed more time with Hub’s dialect coach. Reece’s Irish brogue is competent if slightly over-the-top, whereas Abrahams doesn’t even seem to be attempting an English accent throughout most of the evening.
The inconsistencies extend through Hub’s technical work. The costumes by Erica Desautels and Nancy Ishara are perhaps its strongest element. The clothing is well-designed, effectively conveying class and status, which makes it easy to follow each person’s transformation as the story unfolds. The striking contrast between Madeleine’s lush outfit in the first scene and her garb in the play’s final moments is an especially potent example. That said, more attention to detail would have been helpful, because even minor flaws can be distracting. For example, a costume seemed to be visibly damaged under the sleeve and one of Caroline Clancy’s wigs was not properly attached.
The production also struggled to make effective use of the performance space in the First Church of Boston. Some of Daniel Bourque’s directing choices are visually inventive, such as his presentation of the final exchange between Robert and Madeleine. He deftly infuses tension into scenes when it is called for, especially Robert’s testimony in court and the verbal battles with Sir Charles Sturman. Unfortunately, some confrontations are staged in a way that’s incompatible with the challenging seating arrangements; at times, half the audience is left looking at the backs of the actors’ heads. This lack of engagement is compounded by Cassie Chapados’s set; its handmade quality felt half-baked rather than fanciful or expressive of an earlier time.
The Clearing pulls off an impressive challenge for a historical drama: it examines humanity’s weakness in the face of prejudice in a way that is not only faithful to the time period but unmistakably timely. Hub Theatre Company’s treatment of Edmundson’s moving script is generally solid — in fact, it is exemplary at times. That said, the production suffers from an inconsistency that mars the company’s overall effort, preventing it from reaching the heights it otherwise could. Sometimes, a staging can be bedeviled by the details.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.