There was a time (before the phenomenon of “instant news” on the internet) when what most Americans knew about Ireland came from television reports of IRA bombings. News anchors never once questioned the British occupation. The first we heard of “terrorists” was in the nightly news and the “terrorists” they spoke about were IRA, not Middle Eastern. It would take many decades for the tide of public opinion to turn against the British.
Lest we forget how far back the enmity reaches, Wellesley Summer Theatre Company is reviving Helen Edmundson’s THE CLEARING (playing through Feb. 2nd) which they mounted ten years ago. Edmundson sets her play in the mid 1600s when Cromwell’s agents have come to Ireland to clear out “undesirables,” seize land and “reeducate” the Irish in the British mold. Women and children were deported to be sold as indentured servants… or worse. Irish who objected were hung as traitors. Place names were changed and penalties enforced for speaking anything but English. (Brian Friel’s luminous TRANSLATIONS addresses the same topic flawlessly.)
Edmundson’s sweeping, romantic drama should have the feel of a David Lean epic. The WST production starts with promise, when we meet a dashing outlaw in a clearing behind an estate where a baby has just been born. He’s rendezvousing with a go-between to find out about the baby’s mother, a beautiful Irish woman he still cares for who sadly, and foolishly, we learn later on, has married a British officer. Lewis D. Wheeler makes the scene crackle with intrigue when he refuses Elisabeth Yancey’s sweet invitation to enter the house. (Wheeler’s presence revives the production every time he appears. Alas, his character isn’t seen nearly enough.)
Nora Hussey’s production for WST takes a whist broom approach, fussing over set pieces (moving them catty-corner or a foot to the side) to signal each little scene change, hoping it will culminate in a grand sweep—when it really serves to interrupt the flow of the action. WST is, however, lucky to have Angela Bilkic as the doomed Irish wife. She gives the role spirit and a touch of wildness (evident in a scene with the baby which made my audience gasp). Most of the other characters are portrayed in black or white, as Marge Dunn’s character describes the divide: Either people are good at heart or not…but one dimensional bad guys aren’t nearly as compelling as faceted villains.
THE CLEARING still packs a political punch reminding all of us of the tyranny of empire and manifest destiny.