It wouldn’t be a Samuel D. Hunter play unless the dwindling populace of a small town faced economic extinction. And it wouldn’t be a Samuel D. Hunter play unless a parent and child were at each other’s throat.
Hunter’s latest, “Greater Clements,” had its world premiere Monday at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse, and the playwright returns to two familiar subjects with mixed results. While the tiny mining town of Clements, Idaho, deserves to die (regardless of what Hunter tells us repeatedly over the course of his three-act three-hour play), the mother and son he presents are more than worth the long visit. Let’s begin with the play’s better half, centering on Maggie and Joe.
Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan give two of the year’s best performances. Ivey brings her naturalistic gifts to the role of a 60-year-old single mother who loves but can never comprehend the mentally challenged adult son who lives with her. Joe would be several handfuls for any parent, and a friendly neighbor (Nina Hellman) and a slightly fascist cop (Andrew Garman) believe he should have been institutionalized years ago.
Joe brings to mind Lennie from “Of Mice and Men,” and Donovan gives the character a determined dignity that also allows for plenty of bad behavior. Hunter outdoes Steinbeck here by giving Joe visions from an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” They are truly nightmarish, as well as over-the-top theatrical, and Donovan delivers them with a real Grand Guignol flourish. When Joe is at his most vulnerable, everyone around him pulls away, except Maggie, who invariably draws him even closer despite the threat of violence. Maggie’s memories of finding her homeless son on the freezing streets of Anchorage, Alaska, are heartbreaking. She went there to rescue him, but also didn’t want to rescue him. Ivey embodies that maternal-survival conflict to perfection, and her long monologue regarding this Alaskan ordeal shows Hunter at his best and most visceral.
In his 2014 play, “Pocatello,” Hunter focused on the final days of a small diner in a town that had been swallowed up by K-Mart, McDonald’s and Home Depot. The town in “Greater Clements” isn’t really a town anymore, its citizens having voted to decertify the place. Hunter’s story gets a little cockamamie. As presented, that decertification was an act of vengeance against all those rich people from California who bought up property to go skiing and build McMansions in Clements. But don’t these hordes of rich people need their trendy cafes and boutiques? I recommend that Maggie close up her mining museum and open a Starbuck’s. Everything will be fine. Different, but fine.
We could feel sorry for Maggie, whose family goes back at least a century, but then her ancestors took the land from indigenous people. Hunter doesn’t tell that evolutionary story. Instead, he gives Maggie an unexpected visitor from the distant past, an Asian-American man named Billy (Ken Narasaki) who wants to rekindle their high school romance. He also brings his granddaughter Kel (Haley Sakamoto), who just happens to be an expert on Japanese internment camps in the area.
Under Davis McCallum’s direction, Ivey and Donovan take very different approaches (hers subtle, his grand) to deliver their very different characters. McCallum’s direction, however, can’t compensate for the weaker writing that doesn’t bring to life the other characters. Billy is impossibly perfect, and Kel is a snarky teenage character that the playwright lifted from his earlier plays “Pocatello” and “The Whale.” The neighbor and the cop register as little more than devices to tell the story, and rather irritating devices at that.
The world premiere production of “Greater Clements” is marred by Dane Laffrey’s awkward set. A large bedroom lowers and ascends to replicate the elevator in a mine shaft, enhanced by Fitz Patton’s clanging sound design. To make the set function, five poles are needed, and each of them obstructs the audience’s view of what’s going on. I watched one of those poles as, more than once, an actor hidden behind it delivered his or her big speech.