There’s a joke Maggie and her son Joe like to tell on their tours of the local mine in Samuel D. Hunter’s latest play: “Guy falls down into the mine. His boss yells at him, ‘did you break anything?’ Guy shouts back, “only rocks down here, sir, not much to break.”
But as Greater Clements makes movingly clear, even when there’s nothing left, there’s always enough to break.
On the surface, the play is about Maggie (Judith Ivey) and Joe (Edmund Donovan), and the town they live in, Clements, Idaho, whose residents have just voted to “unincorporate,” as an act of self-sabotaging rebellion against the vacationers from California and their sway with the town council. The streetlights will no longer function. The town will effectively cease to exist. And so, we come to understand, will Maggie’s family.
She is about to shut down her mine history museum, which has survived a dozen years past the closing of the local mine. That mine provided generations of Maggie’s family with employment, and with death. Her father and 80 other mineworkers were incinerated by a fire there in the 1970s. All that was left of him was his watch, which was on display under glass in the museum….until Maggie accidentally broke it.
Maggie herself seems to have shut down years ago. We eventually learn this after Billy (Ken Narasaki) pays her a visit, wanting to reignite their love affair from high school, even though that was 50 years ago, Billy is dying of cancer, and both he and Maggie are caretakers now — Billy of his 14-year-old granddaughter Kel (Haley Sakamoto), because her father is a drunk, and Maggie of her 27-year-old son Joe, who is mentally ill.
Maggie didn’t marry Billy because her father, a veteran of the Pacific theater during World War II, forbid her to marry a Japanese-American. The reason why Billy was growing up in Idaho in the first place is because his family was imprisoned during World War II in the nearby Minidoka internment camp. As Kel explains to Joe, while the family was locked up, their neighbor back home stole their farm near Seattle, so after the war “they took the closest farming jobs they could find.” This is why Maggie and Billy had many Japanese-American classmates.
This casual dip into a dark chapter of American history strikes me as a clue to the deeper veins the playwright is trying to mine. The decision of the townsfolk to end their town in order to stick it to the elite feels like a comment on what’s been happening politically in the U.S. (and elsewhere.) So does the sense of stagnation and despair. The characters try to remain hopeful, and they try to be helpful to one another. But the very attempt to help, Hunter seems to suggest, can make things worse. Just a few months before the play begins, Maggie has rescued her homeless son from Anchorage, Alaska, where he had taken refuge years earlier after attacking a neighbor in Clement. Now the sheriff (Andrew Garman) tells him he is going to watch him like a hawk; “it’s for your own good. And your mom’s.“
It’s surely no accident that even Maggie and Joe’s family name enforces their sense of isolation, and of doom – Bunker.
The play is rich with such symbolism. Some of it gets in the way, literally. Dane Laffrey’s set is driven by a noisy, cumbersome contraption that rises and falls to depict either the mine shaft and elevator or the mine museum where the Bunker family live – which is a solid metaphor, except, thanks to buttressing poles, it manages to make nearly every seat an obstructed view.
Some theatergoers might find other obstructions. There are a couple of cumbersome plot devices at the end. It’s also a long play, nearly three hours (including two intermissions) – perhaps longer than it need be, — and a sad, sad one.
But there’s so much here that works for me — above all, the terrific, nuanced performances, especially by Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan. But it’s also the artful way the backstory unfolds, and the credible everyday dialogue that resonates.
When the sheriff comes to visit Maggie, she serves him pie. When he asks for seconds, she adds a scoop of ice cream. He politely protests “you didn’t need to do that.”
“It’s just vanilla,” she replies. I’m not sure why, but that response delighted me – is it because it’s something somebody would actually say, though it makes no sense; does it quickly reveal her appealing personality; is it somehow a metaphor?
The plays of Samuel D. Hunter, , have delighted me from the first one I saw, The Whale in 2013, followed by Pocatello in 2014, and Lewiston/Clarkston last year – each of them chronicling Idaho, a state I’ve never visited, and American loss, a state we all seem to be in.
Greater Clements is on stage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater (150 West 65th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenues, New York, N.Y., 10023) through January 19, 2020. Tickets and details
Greater Clements by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Davis McCallum. Featuring Edmund Donovan, Andrew Garman, Nina Hellman, Judith Ivey, Kate MacCluggage, Ken Narasaki and Haley Sakamoto. Sets by Dane Laffrey, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lighting by Yi Zhao. Original music and sound by Fitz Patton. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.
[Editor’s note: Some readers may have seen Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few at Unexpected Stage this year,]