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Plus Ça Change . . .

A bleak play about Ireland in the seventeenth century, "The Clearing" suggests that if bad things change at all, it's usually for the worse.

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Six years after its London premiere, Helen Edmundson's The Clearing arrives here in a modest but chiseled Blue Light Theater production well worth the wait. This is a traditionalist historical play in the manner of Miller and Sartre, smartly conceived, caringly crafted, and speaking a universal language. Covering three years (1652-55) in County Kildare, Ireland, it tells of the English settler Robert Preston and his Irish wife, Madeleine; of their darling little boy (unseen throughout); and of their friends and neighbors Solomon and Susaneh Winter, an older English couple. Cromwell has defeated the Royalists and the Irish forces, and has now come up with the diabolical scheme of giving away choice Irish land to his soldiery and other supporters, and getting rid of the natives either by transplanting them to the arid Irish west or shipping them off to the American colonies as indentured servants. Those trying to remain would be exterminated. Many Irish men fled to the Continent, some joined the Tory guerrillas, thousands hung from roadside gallows. An Irish head was worth as much as that of a marauding wolf; either would fetch you five pounds.

The Prestons, including Madeleine's childhood friend Killaine, now her cosseted servant, are hopeful that after so much bloody fighting, in which Robert participated, no further troubles threaten. But word reaches Solomon from England of an impending quasi-genocidal decree, which, to be sure, could be contested under certain circumstances, and Robert counts on his friendship with the English governor, Sir Charles Sturman. The birth of his son fills him and Madeleine with hope. Pierce Kinsellagh, another childhood playmate of Madeleine's, very fond of both the lady and her maid, foresees doom and joins the Tories.

Things go from bad to worse, and the play deftly conveys, through its seven main characters, a dismal period in history that perfectly foreshadows our own times as it both eloquently and intimately portrays the evils of colonialism, religious intolerance, conflicting nationalisms -- in fact, all the ills that politics can inflict on private lives.

Edmundson's characters are not black and white: The good people have their tragic flaws, and the bad ones at least firmly believe in their righteousness. The language is literate without being recherché, and we are kept in steady involvement and suspense. Michael Countryman nicely embodies both the staunchness and the ultimate weakness of Preston; Patricia Dunnock is compelling as Killaine, who undergoes a shattering transformation; Joseph Costa and Sandra Shipley are touchingly understated as the Winters.

Simon Brooking is a doughty yet sensitive Pierce, Sam Catlin a perhaps slightly overstated but still persuasive Sir Charles, and Steve Juergens does justice to several small roles. My only problem is with the Madeleine of Alyssa Bresnahan. Not blessed with an instantly pleasing exterior, she compensates with accomplished and impassioned acting. But she makes the intransigent, heroically noncompliant character maybe a bit too bulldozerish, her face in bewilderment assuming an expression perilously close to hebetude. Still, she and Countryman complement each other well.

In the skimpy and unaccommodating space of the former Second Stage, the canny director, Tracy Brigden, and her savvy designers (Jeff Cowie, sets; Susan Hilferty, costumes; Howell Binkley, lights; John Gromada, music and sound) aptly circumvent a sense of crampedness and evoke an authentic atmosphere. The Times dismissed The Clearing as so much junk, but I beseech you not to believe this. In neatly concentric circles, we get the tragedy of a marriage, a country, and embattled humanity itself.


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