The American Dream and all of its values have taken quite a beating lately. Director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” Bruce Springsteen’s recent “Western Stars” album, even Ralph Lauren in the documentary “Very Ralph” show us how this country and all of its totems and merits have gone asunder.
No dreams are more crushed, however, than those in playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s “Greater Clements,” now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. Here, the entire town of Clements, Idaho, is a thriving mining town that has died, been taken over by California banks and made to put its very existence down to a vote. Of the few who remain, proudly if not exactly happily, none seem more dug in than Maggie, portrayed by Judith Ivey with the full flower of human emotion and the wide open face to share it.
Maggie’s father, his father before him, and even Maggie’s son, Joe (the twitchily exquisite Edmund Donovan), have all been an active part of the dream. She and her son ran a mine museum and tour before the present-day referendum, and having to shutter the shop as the town closes down is one more nail in the coffin. There is, however, sudden hope for Maggie for the first time in nearly fifty years as the love of her (teen) life suddenly pops into the picture (sick though he may be with a second round of prostrate cancer), leaving a sliver of light and joy for her to consider.
As her nervous neighbor Olivia (Nina Hellman) reminds us, Maggie has had to take all-consuming care of every man in her life, leaving no room for herself, her potential or her opportunities. Then again: Was this American Dream ever much good to begin with, considering that there was a World War II Japanese-American internment camp not so far away? Or that her war-veteran father kept her from one-time beau and real love, Billy (Ken Narasaki), due to his own bigotry? Or that Maggie may not have ever been the mother she should have been to a boy plagued with deep mental illnesses, and leaving everyone involved with a pall of shame? It all begins to sound a bit like a modern Depression-Era soap – something like “The Grape of Wrath” mixed through with the cataclysmic-teen melodrama of “Riverdale.”
Hunter, known for plays including “The Whale,” is a high plains drifter who knows his Middle America like a preacher knows his Bible verse. Along with being born and raised in Moscow, Idaho ( a location that gets many a shout-out in “Greater Clements”), the playwright won an Obie for “A Bright New Boise” and its not-so-bright look at the landscape. Hunter’s longtime collaborator, director Davis McCallum, here guides the playwright through similar literal/figurative terrain, in wily works such as “Lewiston/Clarkson.”
In “Greater Clements,” Hunter and McCallum portray the icy actuality of American disappointment and disenfranchisement alongside the warmth of deep family ties. McCallum’s sense of movement and staging (on sets by Dane Laffrey) is economical and quietly inventive, with the dank, hot mine and its museum on one level and a hydraulically lifted changeover that brings the audience into Maggie’s emotionally uncomfortable home environment.
The dark and moody lighting by Yi Zhao is always an aid to the action, especially in the scenes that Joe shares with Billy’s 14-year-old granddaughter Kel (Haley Sakamoto). Bringing her down into to the mine at the young girl’s request — a death trap for so many before them, both as an unshakeable, large-scale town tragedy and the smaller scale soul-crush of men harshly underpaid for the blood and sweat — plays into Joe’s longing for purpose and Kel’s own morbid death wish.
At times Hunter’s text comes across like Sam Shephard without the cowboy-punk poetry. There’s a cool predictability to the build-up of hope and the oncoming slap of tragedy, when it could have felt hotter and more treacherously claustrophobic than a mine shaft. But Hunter knows how to grapple with the oppressive and the oppressed, and his asides on the shame of Japanese-American internment and the mishandling of the mentally ill is ripe for thought. Ultimately, however, Hunter doesn’t always keep the pressure on, and his language meanders.
What saves his drama, however, is a handful of persuasive performances. Ivey, a two time Tony winner, portrays Maggie with a pragmatic finality (she laughs off old age with a hearty confidence), a girlish playfulness (pleased as she is to finally gain the attention of her teen love), a lonely fearfulness and genuine confusion at what she couldn’t accomplish for her once-lost son’s well-being.
That mentally challenged son, who sees eyes without a face and has been capable of hurting others as well as himself, is played by Donovan as ferociously sad and puppy-dog wary of those trying to befriend or comfort him. Beyond that, he’s merely trying to do what’s good and what seems, in his mind, best — something that gives “Greater Clements” its mournful dénouement. Heading toward that incendiary end, Donovan is a live wire.
Hunter’s version of the American Dream is lyrical in so many of the right places, but not boldly so. If only all of “Greater Clements” were as wiry as Ivey and Donovan’s performances.