In ‘Greater Clements,’ a Playwright Mines Lesser Days

Judith Ivey appears at the center of a few, very individual stories of certain troubled Americans -- and a much, much larger American tragedy.

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Greater Clements
Judith Ivey and Ken Narasaki in Samuel D. Hunter's "Greater Clements." Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The citizenry of Clements, ID, population unspecified, just voted to un-incorporate. Now Clements is no more, and its northern Idaho mine, not in operation for some time, will no longer function as one of the only local attractions. The mine tour and attached museum, run by Maggie (Judith Ivey) and her son, Joe (Edmund Donovan), are shutting down.

Aside from the very real end of the mine and museum, this sorry development — partly blamed upon the encroachment of rich Californians building getaways — can also be viewed as a metaphor for the plight of Maggie and Joe. In their unfortunate way, they too face the prospect of shutting down. After all, Maggie’s husband long ago abandoned his wife and son. Maggie must deal with this 27-year-old young man in chronic mental distress alone.

That’s the beginning of Greater Clements, Samuel D. Hunter’s sturdy drama now at Lincoln Center Theater. It’s the latest in a list of idiosyncratic works by Hunter, who is best-known for The Whale — also about a man in a highly troubled condition. Here, Joe has only just returned to Clements, brought back by Maggie after a six-year journey to Alaska. He’d fled there hoping to find work — and peace — but was not lucky. Back home, his problems only slightly abate. For the moment, he’s stopped seeing duck faces on anyone he passes, as he did on the streets of Anchorage.

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Maggie, coping seemingly successfully with Joe, has another reason to imagine better times when an old boyfriend, Billy (Ken Narasaki), stops by for a short visit with granddaughter Kel (Haley Sakamoto), whose unseen father is a deteriorating alcoholic. They’re on their way to a mock youth congress in Moscow, ID, where Kel is supposed to push a bill.

Maggie suspects that the flame between her and Billy — one forcefully extinguished by her World War II veteran dad years earlier — might be rekindled. She’s got his purpose right; whether she can leave her home and reestablish herself with Billy, however, is far from a done deal.

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Over the course of Hunter’s three acts (imagine, a three-act play bowing in 2019!), Maggie must cope with volatile Joe’s acting up and with problems caused by Kel and her morbid streak. Not the least of which is when Kel asks the thoughtlessly accommodating Joe to show her the mine, whose tunnels are over 6,000 feet down and a standard temperature of 115 degrees.

Worrying about Maggie but also meddling in her daily routine is Olivia (Nina Hellman), a local community activist in the habit of always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Unswervingly on Maggie’s side is Wayne (Andrew Garman), a sheriff who stops by every now and then, but not only because of his admiration for Maggie (and her homemade pie) but also to keep an eye on Joe. Mona (Kate MacCluggage), a third character whose relation to the Greater Clements plot won’t be detailed here, arrives very late in the play. (Again, imagine that: a new character arriving only minutes before fade-out in a play in 2019!)

Primarily the story of one strong but severely tested woman, Greater Clements unfolds on Dane Laffrey’s complex set, which, echoing a mine elevator, has floors rising and lowering to indicate Maggie’s living area, the museum and reception space, the upstairs bedroom, and a mine tunnel where Joe conducted the tours since his return.

Hunter positions the scenes solidly as Maggie tries her best to handle the unpredictable Joe and to ponder a new life with the unperturbedly upbeat but cancer-afflicted Billy. He writes thoroughly credible exchanges between Wayne and Maggie, and between Wayne and Joe — who has been suspicious of Wayne since childhood. He gives a heated sequence to Maggie and Olivia; Olivia believes Maggie voted in favor of un-incorporating Clements and would like to know why. Hunter further hands over time to Kel and her concerns as the daughter of a drunk and granddaughter of a dying man.

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While visiting and revisiting themes that he favors, such as frequently forgotten people, Hunter also patently dislikes repeating himself, a quality he shares with Carson McCullers. In Greater Clements, this produces consistently satisfying work, but one that only catches fire in its very final minutes. And one scene doesn’t ring true: when Joe engages a defiant, even suicidal Kel with unexpected authority when they’ve illicitly gone into the mine at her insistence.

The always reliable Ivey, with her unfailing, down-to-earth quality, was once quoted saying that she knows who her character is when she knows what shoes she would wear. Maggie wears comfortable shoes (Kaye Voyce is the costumer), so Ivey takes her on accordingly — a woman offering comfort to others while finding little herself. As the difficult Joe, Donovan gives the kind of performance for which adjectives like “electrifying” are often trotted out. When he’s on stage, the stage is his. The other actors, each one empathetically directed by Davis McCallum, are very much up to snuff.

While Hunter sets Greater Clements in an obscure section of the Northwest — he was born and raised in Moscow, ID — he’s surely mindful that he’s commenting on a hot issue of the day: the nationwide destiny of mining towns. He homing in on a few, very individual stories of certain troubled Americans, but it’s a microcosm of something much larger: populations who once relied on a local industry to support them and can do so no longer. It reminds us that the current administration, having campaigned on a vow to revive coal mining, cannot bring itself to admit that the vow was made only to dupe the voters. We know better. One wonders whether Maggie does, too.