Samuel D. Hunter, master of the midwestern miniature, has finally gone long. It’s not that his earlier plays were short, exactly — The Whale, his 2012 heartrending portrait of a man trapped in his own apartment by sorrow and weight, went on for two intermissionless hours; last year’s beautiful diptych Lewiston/Clarkston took a full evening to perform (though it was actually a pair of stand-alone plays with a barbecue picnic in the middle). But whatever their running times, his best shows so far have had the pulse of a fast one-act — magnetic and uninterrupted, drawing our attention spans along a single arc from (usually) alienation to connection.
In Greater Clements, though, you can see him working out an entirely new (read: old) mechanism. It is a big show, uptown at Lincoln Center, but it seems like Hunter’s true reason for scaling up to three hours plus two intermissions (!) is so he can write a civic drama as well as a personal one. On its face, Greater Clements is about a mother, Maggie (Judith Ivey), and her troubled son, Joe (Edmund Donovan), a sweet, lost man in his 20s whose apparent schizophrenia has made him a local pariah. But underneath — and this is a play that is all about underneaths — it’s the story of a town. Clements is in the midst of its own voluntary disintegration: Political squabbles with new residents have led to a vote for disincorporation. What was a town is now going to be just … a place. Garbage isn’t being picked up, and public lighting is out, and though we never see Clements, you can easily picture that old horror motif of streetlights winking out along an empty street. Click, click, click — and populist darkness comes rolling up the road.
The other darkness is below. Maggie runs (and lives in) a museum dedicated to the local mine, a wonder for its size and depth that will be another casualty of the disincorporation. She and her family have led tours of the mine for decades, and Hunter starts the show with one: In deep blackness, Joe, his headlamp shining in our eyes, talks about the mine and its history. A disastrous fire in the 1970s killed his grandfather “down on the 6,400 level,” he says in his abrupt tone, and you can hear the yearning in his voice to go all the way down to the closed-off core where it happened.
As the lights come up, the low mine roof actually comes down. Set designer Dane Laffrey has built an enormous in-the-round elevator set, and its roof grinds along massive girders to thunk into place on the floor. It’s a powerful design move, but it poses physical questions that Lincoln Center’s little, round Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater can’t answer. Many seats are obstructed by the struts or the interior sets themselves, and it requires some weird movement choices from director Davis McCallum to establish when people are up- or downstairs in Maggie’s house. Because everyone is always coming over to Maggie’s house. Hunter has mostly put people in his play who want to help her: best friend and busybody Olivia (Nina Hellman), adoring local sheriff Wayne (Andrew Garman), and high-school ex-boyfriend Billy (Ken Narasaki) — who has come to town riddled with cancer and saddled with raising a granddaughter, Kel (Haley Sakamoto), but eager to reconnect with his long-ago love.
There are two dramatic engines in Greater Clements. One is the pull of the unstructured dark. The mine yawns on the mountainside, waiting for more victims, seducing Joe and Kel with its morbid history. Joe has returned home after years of homelessness, but he’s often found in unlit corners, seeking out the perverted freedom of surrender. The city has chosen to erase itself, and you feel a similar death wish moving under many of the characters’ skins, tugging them away from human connection.
The second engine is the urge to help, and what makes Greater Clements a really frightening play is that this kindly, protective instinct leads, in each case, to tragedy. Maggie wants to protect Joe, so she’s brought him home; Sheriff Wayne wants to protect Maggie, so he bullies her fragile son; Olivia wants to protect Maggie, so she exposes her secrets. Joe’s particular psychosis involves a specific hallucination, in which people’s faces are replaced with fleshy shapes, alien-looking smears with black holes for eyes. Hunter never even gestures to the supernatural in Greater Clements, but he still manages to make us feel that sense of horror-struck betrayal, as each kind gesture turns sour and damaging and unrecognizable as it unfolds.
Okay, I realize this doesn’t sound that appetizing. Greater Clements is steeped in sadness, even in its more optimistic moments, and a person looking for a fun night out might not want to take on that particular stain. And I can’t say the play is as assured as other Hunter works. In moving his chess pieces into place, Hunter sometimes lets us see the playwright’s hand: There’s some rather melodramatic use of overheard conversations, for instance, and both of the play’s final scenes try to underline themes while accidentally undercutting what has gone before. That may have led to other destabilizations. The performances can be uneven, with Garman (a longtime Hunter actor) exactly striking the appropriate tone while others swing too hard and miss.
But Joe, the prodigal who doesn’t find a welcome, is the perfect person to build such a tottering play around — when the play shakes, we look to him, and we see he has been shaken from the beginning. Donovan, operating at an intensity that’s almost difficult to watch, is doing something with Joe that we don’t usually get to see onstage — he’s showing us a long moment of arrested collapse. During the tour, Joe tells us there was a period in the mine fire when smoke had filled the place, but no one realized yet they were all dying. It’s that state of being gone, but not knowing it yet, that Donovan has discovered: the art of waving away rescuers who weren’t coming anyway.
Greater Clements is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.