Presented by Hub Theatre Company of Boston
By Helen Edmundson
Directed by Daniel Bourque
Assistant direction and dramaturgy by Isabel Dollar
Dialect coaching by Meredith Gosselin
Fight direction by Samantha Richert
Critique by Kitty Drexel
(Boston, MA) The Clearing is about white on white ethnic cleansing. It is 1652 and Cromwell is rabid for Catholic land and English Royalist lives. His Parliament passed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland and sentenced them to lives in Connaught, deportation to Barbados, or to death. It wasn’t very pleasant for anyone except Cromwell’s cronies. Hub Theatre’s production isn’t a hopeful production (the colonizers win) but it tells a necessary story.
Madeleine Preston (Brashani Reece) has just delivered a baby boy when neighbors Solomon (George Page) and Susaneh Winter (Robin Abrahams) announce to her husband Robert Preston (Matthew Zahnzinger) that Cromwell is purging Ireland of its native and royalist inhabitants. All native Irish and their sympathizers are at ricks. When family friend and trusted confidante Killaine Farrell (Lily Steven) is abducted, Maddie pleads to unhinged magistrate Sir Sturman (Jeff Gill) for Killaine’s return. Robert loses his ever-loving stuff when he discovers that Maddie doesn’t cower under pressure from on high. Jon Vellante and Alexander Stravinski round out the cast.
This play is less about government sanctioned slavery and more about one Englishman’s mental breakdown when he is blindsided by his Irish wife’s entirely predictable behavior. Yes, the audience is told in graphic detail the horrors Cromwell inflicted on Ireland by the loathsome Sir Charles Sturman (Gill’s delivery of Sturman’s disturbed rants are deeply unsettling). Yet, we are compelled forward by the romantic relationship between Maddie and Robert. Maddie is bursting with confidence and action. Robert is ignorant of the action hidden underneath Maddie’s skin. Robert, like England, was shocked.
Reece and Zahnzinger give compelling performances. Their transformations from couple frolicking in blissful ignorance to political adversaries straddles the line between the uncannily familiar and heart wrenchingly alien. Robert is a consummate coward freezing when he must face adversity. Maddie, also fearful, doesn’t. Their split is as good an advertisement for equal marital rights as any.
Steven plays Killaine with gentleness and sensitivity. Killaine has a pure heart until events force her develop emotional callouses. Her third act farewell scene with Maddie is traumatizing in its sincerity.
The scenic and lighting design by Cassie Chapados and Chris Bocchiaro makes the set look like it was taken out of a fairytale. The sound design by Ian Conway is eerily prescient.
The dramaturgy work by Isabel Dollar helps the audience immensely. The Clearing is long and chock full of historical information necessary to understand the political lashings that the Irish received from Cromwell’s English. There was a lot of dick waving in the name of God advancing from all directions. Dollar’s work makes clear sense of just how fucked the native Irish were.
For all this great work, there were some confusing design elements of the production. Gill’s wig looked taxidermied. Zahnzinger, he of the ginger hair, wasn’t in a wig. His natural locks would have been a dead give away that Preston wasn’t a purebred Whig.
The accent work was great on the folks who adapted one. The actors who chose an Irish accent sounded Irish. The actors that chose an English accent sounded English. And then there were some actors who chose neither. Their acting was fine, totally believable characters… With indistinct accents from an unspecified location. It was confusing.
It should be noted that Cromwell’s historical ass-holery on behalf of the masses occurred a mere 22 years after England finally stopped burning witches. They imprisoned the Irish for practicing their faith, speaking their language, performing their art, and displaying any of marker of independent identity. The deployed the same tactics as the colonized the Americas. They worked so they kept refining them to be as deadly as possible.
We, their descendants, still practice them on our natives. Canada’s government did the same to their First Nations population. They are currently in use in Australia – which has no treaty with their indigenous peoples. History has proven that powerful, rich, white men will do anything to retain their power and riches. We should heed Edmundson’s warnings in The Clearing before we come full circle.