If you need your programs stamped, come over here," a voice called out over the exiting crowd of University of Memphis students attending a Thursday-night performance of The Clearing.
The Clearing is a thoughtful but slow-moving play by Helen Edmundson that examines the unsavory phenomenon of ethnic cleansing on a nearly cellular level. A portion of the yawning crowd drifted in the general direction of the disembodied voice, and it became clear that this had been a captive audience; an audience force-fed their culture by writ of academic requirement; an audience that would have rather been anywhere else in the world. It explained the inappropriate laughter, the cell phones, and hushed, giggly conversations throughout. It explained why there wasn't a lot of love in the house for Edmundson's costume drama about an Irish family torn apart by nationalism and faith. On the other hand, The Clearing -- for all of its good intentions -- is its own worst enemy. It bubbles with beautiful language and boils with big ideas, but it's a challenging affair even for interested parties and utterly incapable of competing with the deft, compelling poetry of an IM.
Written in 1993, The Clearing uses events in 17th-century Ireland to explore more contemporary horrors in Bosnia. The play is often -- and unfairly -- compared to The Crucible, Arthur Miller's thinly veiled takedown of McCarthyism. But Miller's 1953 masterpiece is a comparatively lean thriller set during the time of the Salem witch trials, while Edmundson's play leans heavily on melodrama peopled with heroes and villains who can -- in spite of some committed performances by student actors -- be as one-dimensional as anything one might find in a Sigmund Romberg operetta. The pity of it all is that The Clearing successfully sheds some light on an important historical question: How can a generally good and moral person come to support the cause of a cruel despot like an Adolf Hitler or a Slobodan Milosevic?
Robert Preston (played with a distanced precision by Robert McDonough) is an Englishman living in Ireland with Maddy, his feisty Irish wife, after Oliver Cromwell and his Protestant army seize power from the crown. Preston is a neutral party who donates to Cromwell's men only to protect his family and his property, but when he -- and later his wife -- question the relocation and murder of the Irish and English settlers who were loyal to the crown, Preston's entire world is threatened. Only those who show special affection for Cromwell are to be spared relocation (or pain of death), and Preston's crushing fears are manipulated into anger and hatred toward his once-beloved wife and neighbors.
David Nofsinger's lush set in the Mainstage Theatre brings elements of modern design into a fairy-tale landscape that could easily double as a backdrop for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Unfortunately, the vivid set competes with the actors for the audience's attention, and many of the play's crucial metaphors are swallowed up in its grandness. It might have been more interesting to see The Clearing produced in the U of M's more intimate lab theater, where it would be easier to concentrate on the characters without being distracted by a constantly moving backdrop that calls to mind the munching mouth of a giant dinosaur forever feasting on the sun or the moon.
Latrelle Bright is appealing as the strong-willed, inherently good Maddy, who comes off like an Irish Scarlett O'Hara minus the selfishness and vanity. Only Bright's personal charm keeps Maddy from becoming boring once she becomes predictable. Eric Duerr is less successful at finding dimension in the moustache-twirling villainy of Sir Charles Sturman, the governor of Ireland under Cromwell, who takes a nearly sexual delight in robbing and butchering the Irish. It doesn't help that director Jennifer Elizabeth Bauer has allowed Duerr to carry a bright-red riding crop that he strokes maniacally.
The Clearing is an ugly play about an ugly period that holds up a mirror to the modern world and shows us how barbarity perpetuates itself. Why anyone would ever try to make it so very beautiful is something of a mystery. Nevertheless, it would be well worth watching if only the audience was a bit more polite.