In grade school I was assigned to record a lengthy interview with a relative. Armed with a set of some hundred-odd prefabricated questions, I sat down with my gracious grandmother and gave it a shot. I learned, among other things, that you do not traipse across someone’s life as through a meadow. It is rather like bushwhacking your way through a strange jungle: the air is thick with damp, and, though you stumble across specimens noxious and exquisite, you spend the better part hacking and hacking and wiping the sweat from your brow. It is pedestrian most of the time, which is necessary, because our lives are pedestrian most of the time, at least when we try to explain them to others. I called multiple bathroom breaks, more for my sake than hers.
The experience of seeing Samuel D. Hunter’s Greater Clements, which closed on January 19 at the Lincoln Center Theater, is something like this. At the performance I attended, most in the audience were even older than my grandmother, and all of us likely would have snoozed through a healthy portion had it been a Friday evening instead of a Sunday matinee. Wisdom comes with age, however, and there is much wisdom in this play—one might even say the thirty-eight-year-old Hunter is wise beyond his years. He had, for instance, the foresight to include not one but two bathroom breaks in the three-hour, three-act show.
Hunter also builds out Greater Clements, Idaho—a fictional mining town in his home state—with careful attention to the intricacies and banalities that by turns animate and stultify his characters. That he means for us to do a bit of digging is clear from the opening scene. Half the set (designed by Dane Laffrey) is covered by a trapezoidal platform that elevates and descends. When lifted up with the lights off and twenty-seven-year-old Joe (Edmund Donovan) lurching across the stage, it becomes a mine-shaft elevator. The average temperature is 115 degrees at 6,400 feet below, we learn as he runs through his tour-guide spiel. His deadened drawl and vacant pauses tell us that the young man is a bit touched—he has the “social intelligence of a fifteen-year-old”—but Donovan imbues the role with a quiet and powerful dignity.
The mines closed down twelve years ago, and the town has just voted to unincorporate. Accordingly, the play is not so much about what is as what was. After the enticing prelude, the first act is spent mining the past for meaningful backstory. It is a slow, stifling process. Joe lives with his mother, Maggie (Judith Ivey), whom we watch closing down and packing up the town museum above which they live. (The lowered platform becomes an upstairs bedroom.) She keeps her anxieties at bay by mothering everyone and everything she can, in every way imaginable. Hopping about with her foot in her mouth, she is hardly a paradigm of grace; her clumsiness at times bleeds into Hunter’s stage directions, as she has an uncanny knack for pulling other characters offstage whenever a scene requires a quick exit.
Billy (Ken Narasaki), an old flame of Maggie’s from high school, drops in with his granddaughter Kel (Haley Sakamoto). He is sick with cancer but insists he is determined not to be a burden; the director, Davis McCallum, could have advised Narasaki to pump the brakes here, as he was the sprightliest terminal patient I have ever seen. He has designs to marry and run away with Maggie; that he secretly relishes putting on a cheery persona as a means to that end is sufficiently clear.
So too with Kel, who is at every turn all too teenaged, and with Olivia (Nina Hellman), Maggie’s all-too-nosy friend. To his credit, Hunter delineates and interweaves their backstories deftly, but a role does not a character make. Form and function are a little too closely aligned: just as the individuals are weighed down by the past, so too are their performances weighed down, even overdetermined, by lengthy exposition. During most of the first act, I wished Hunter had written a novel instead, to give the characters room to breathe. On the stage, they are buried in backstory.
The sole exception is Joe, in whom the past is felt rather than spelled out. This is achieved via his psychiatric condition, of course, but also in his posture, always fiddling and tinkering, or in such moments as his inward heartbreak at learning that the pocket watch of his grandfather, who died in a legendary fire at the 6,400-foot bottom of the mine, has fallen off the shelf and broken. Donovan’s performance becomes Atlantean: the physical weight of the drama rests on his shoulders.
Act II begins with a conversation between Maggie and Wayne (Andrew Garman), a sheriff without a town, in which he recounts a drunk-driving ex-citizen telling him where to shove it—“I just voted to dissolve this town, and we won! So I don’t have to obey your laws anymore!” His presence on stage casts the embittered reality of the town in sharp relief, and he brings much-needed immediacy to the play. Wayne has eyes on Joe, and for good reason—Maggie’s son, as big as his heart may be, is given to manic and violent outbursts. For lack of a better plan, she mainly hopes to stave off any such incidents through motherly emollience, as if refusing to acknowledge she is too old and too impatient to do so. Wayne openly takes a more skeptical tack. When Joe listens to the sheriff detail how his policeman father dealt with the town nutjob in his day—off the record, and with gloves off—it makes for a tightrope walk down memory lane. Awkward and stumbling by comparison is the earlier contrivance by which Kel, who like her grandfather is Japanese-American, educates a disbelieving Joe about the history of racism and internment camps in the western United States. A tragic subject, to be sure. But it is hardly dignified by Hunter having her broach it in political debate with a man-child.
Not to spoil the third act or the harrowing ending, which is good enough to forgive the feebler second and third endings tacked on after it, but the whole play is at odds with itself on a number of levels: Maggie and Billy want to make good on a teenage promise—get married and move away—but Joe & co. threaten to hold them back; more broadly, most of the characters are hamstrung by the slow, mundane process of unearthing memory, and yet oddly dignified by it, as though made more valuable by our efforts to endure; and, sitting in the audience, one struggles with oneself—whether to nod off, continue watching, or get out for a breath of fresh air.
It’s all a bit like interviewing one’s grandmother, or mining for gold: long and tedious, with a low success-per-attempt rate. Fatigue sets in, and you start to question if the object is intrinsically beautiful, or just valuable because it’s rare. Then, in a flash, you’re holding the real, shimmering thing in your hands. It stuns and captivates. But once you realize how much remains to be done, you come to your senses, the ore goes into the pile, and it’s back to work.