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A CurtainUp Review
The Clearing
We will wrench her teeth out like a toothless whore. We will make a nun out of her yet
--- Sir Charles Sturman, Oliver Cromwell's aide during the "troubles" that beset Ireland in 1651.

Michael Countryman and Alyssa Bresnahan
The Clearing which is making its New York debut under the auspices of the Blue Light Theater Co. has one major flaw. It's running for too short a time and in too small a venue to be seen by every New Yorker who yearns for viscerally gripping, timely theater.

Like our own elder statesman of playwrighting, Arthur Miller, Helen Edmundson addresses large moral issues within the more intimate context of a personal drama. Miller went back to the Salem witchcraft trials to express his outrage at Senator Joe McCarthy's ruthless pursuit of anyone who ever came within an inch of a communist in The Crucible. Ms. Edmundson tears a dark page out of history to mirror the horrors committed in the name of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (and before then by Hitler and his henchmen). Her setting is Ireland in 1562, three years after the execution of King Charles I after a long and bloody civil war. The Parliamentarian who was in the forefront of the anti-king struggle, Oliver Cromwell, is Lord-General and Commander in Chief of the Commonwealth and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The play's three year span parallels a reign that embraced a policy of execution, forced relocation, and English colonialization in Ireland.

This may sound like a polemic masquerading as theater, but it's not. Sure, the playwright presents a strong pro-Irish point of view, and given the special strength of the three female characters, is also a feminist. What she gives us first and foremost, however, is a linguistically and character rich story that engages our hearts and minds. It begins with a joyful event. A healthy baby boy completes the happiness Robert Preston (Michael Countryman), an English aristocrat, and his Irish-Catholic wife Madeleine Preston (Alyssa Bresnahan) have found together. In the words of Madeleine's best friend, the" gentle Killaine Farrell, (Patricia Dunnock), it is "a watery love -- they drown in each other. But the increasingly restrictive and violent Cromwell regime is not one where people like the Prestons and other English settlers or apolitical Irish citizens like Killaine can continue to live as if what was happening beyond their front doors didn't concern them. The English-Irish lovers are faced with moral dilemmas that will change them forever.

The plot moves forward through five unflaggingly compelling acts, with each scene ending in a tense and telling cliffhanger moment. To establish the dark cloud of events swirling around the passionate and joyful union of Robert and Madeleine, the play begins with Killaine near a tree in the clearing beyond the Preston's home. She is joined by Madeleine's other friend from the past, Pierce Kinsellagh (Simon Brooking) to whom her marriage is a betrayal of her country and the English-Irish baby being born a "poison in her body." The shift from that dark scene outside to the light and exaltation inside signals the troubles that will shake the foundations of what appears to be a rock solid love.

Fortunately, the fine script is exceptionally well realized on every count. The actors all negotiate the plot's twists and turns with impressive sensitivity. Alyssa Bressnehan magnificently transforms Madeleine from a girlishly playful wife whose only religion is love to a woman stubbornly entrenched on a more difficult path. Patricia Dunnock gives a fine understated performance as the less flamboyant Killaine. Her final scene is a hearrtwrencher. Joseph Costa and Sandra Shipley are touching as the English settlers who manage to maintain their dignity in the face of frightening humiliation. It falls to Michael Countryman as the adoring husband whose loyalties prove more me-first than heroic and Sam Catlin as Sir Charles Sturman, Cromwells local representative, to carry off the less sympathetic parts. Both do so without resorting to stereotypical villainy.

Tracy Brigden consistently well-paced direction is commendable too for its excellent stagecraft. Jeff Cowie's set unfussily captures the play's multi-layered nuances. The tree at the rear of the stage serves as an overriding symbolic presence throughout. The darkness surrounding it signals the gloomy world beyond the Preston home, the black band wrapped around by Killaine evokes visions of mourning while Madeleine's green band is a mark of Irish rebellion. The bare, outstretched branches seem like a plea for understanding, for help. Howell Binkley's lighting and John Gromada's original music round out the assets of the production.

In the less name-brand driven theatrical climate of days gone by, The Clearing would surely have moved from its much-praised run at the Hartford Stage to a Broadway house. As it is, one can only hope that its reception will be strong enough to accomplish such a move, if not to Broadway, to a larger Off-Broadway house. Such moves do still happen -- for example, The Exact Center of the Universe currently enjoying a second Off-Broadway incarnation, and the Tony-winning Side Man which moved from a limited CSC premiere to the Roundabout and then for over a year to the Golden. But don't take my wishful thinking for a fait accompli. Just seize the opportunity to see The Clearing in its current home.

by Helen Edmundson
Directed by Tracy Brigden
Starring: Alyssa Bresnahan
With (in alphabetical order) Simon Brooking, Sam Catlin, Joseph Costa, Michael Countryman, Patricia Dunnock, Steve Juergens, Sandra Shipley
Set Design: Jeff Cowie
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley Original music and sound design: John Gromada
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty Dialect Coach: Jillian Lane-Plescia
Wig Design: Tom Watson
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Presented by Blue Light Theater Co. at McGinn/Cazalle, above the Promenade (Broadway/76th), 279-4200
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
9/24/99-10/31/99; opening 10/07/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance 10/30/99 performance
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