If the historical stage drama is an endangered species, “The Clearing” may just push it over into extinction. First produced in 1993 at London’s Bush Theater, Helen Edmundson’s play about Oliver Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing of 17th century Ireland receives its New York premiere at the Blue Light Theater Co. in a handsome production worthy of a PBS Sunday-night special.
In an age when few playwrights attempt even three acts, Edmundson provides a full five, albeit mercifully short ones. “The Clearing” begins where all great historical potboilers must: with a birthing scene. Connoisseurs of the form will know it is a very difficult birth. Accompanied by lutes, wind and the cries of wolves, Madeleine Preston (Alyssa Bresnahan) “has turned herself inside out” to give her British aristocrat husband, Robert Preston (Michael Countryman), a child. She’s an Irish lass with so much spirit, her red hair nearly blazes with the fire that cannot be contained in her heart.
Bliss between an Englishman and his Irish wife is doomed in the 1650s, what with all the hangings and rape and deportation to unsavory exotic climes. Robert would just as soon bury his head in a hedge of heather, but fiery Madeleine is born to the cause. In fact, she would sacrifice her new-born to make a political point. To give Edmundson her due, this particular display of priorities makes for a curtain-dropper right up there with another Irish girl’s “as God is my witness” rotten-turnip scene.
The suds don’t lather up as nicely in the second half. Robert is too quickly the cad, selling Madeleine out to the British authorities and so squelching the emotional pull of their final scene together. As Robert, Michael Countryman recalls the dignified acting style of Ronald Colman. (In 1999, this isn’t much of a compliment.) The role of Madeleine is written as one long tour de force, and Bresnahan delivers to the point of theatrical overload.
In the supporting cast, Sandra Shipley and Joseph Costa effectively underplay put-upon Brits who moved to the Irish countryside a decade or two early and face humiliation at the hands of Cromwell’s local rep. As that villainous Sir Charles Sturman, Sam Catlin is less successful at being subdued; some overwritten bad-guy roles simply refuse to travel the high road.
Out on the moor, Patricia Dunnock’s Killaine nearly topples a tree when she hears her friend Madeleine give birth, but later, when she’s been beaten and raped and had time to contemplate the long voyage to Barbados — or is it Bermuda? — she brings a refreshingly understated emotionalism to her final big scene with Bresnahan.
Under Tracy Brigden’s overwrought direction, every scene is a big one, but in truth Edmundson hasn’t given her any little ones to play with. John Gromada’s original music provides all the necessary cues: The Irish get haunting lutes, the Brits are introduced with an uptight harpsichord. The overall scenic design is more refined, from Susan Hilferty’s generic historical costumes to set designer Jeff Cowie’s series of sliding oak panels that would be an asset to any prewar apartment on West End Avenue.