The German philosopher/political theorist Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, having covered the 1961 trial of the former Nazi leader for the New Yorker. She noted the absence of any affect of guilt, mental instability or even anti-Semitism in Eichmann; he was thoroughly immersed in the role of a bureaucrat doing his job, which involved carrying out Hitler’s Final Solution: the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe.
Helen Edmundson, in writing The Clearing in 1994, was prompted by the more recent ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian conflict to bring the story of Puritan Oliver Cromwell’s extermination of the Irish people and their culture. This production at Wellesley Summer Theatre illuminates the horror not only of the dispossession of families from their land, but of the snuffing out of the wild magic of Celtic culture, as played by the radical Pierce (Lewis D. Wheeler); the woman he’s always loved, Maddy (Angela Bilkic), an Irishwoman married to an English landowner caught between her roots and her beautiful new life, and her lifelong dearest one (and nanny) the “strange, sweet” Killaine (Elizabeth Yancey).
However, the banality of evil shows up in the scenes involving Governor Sturman played with a peevish stolidity by Mark McIntye, and Robert Preston (Woody Gaul), the English landowner trying to keep his head buried in the piece of Irish sod he owns and ignore the storm clouds gathering. These scenes, involving Robert and his neighbor and fellow denialist Solomon (John Kinsherf), in which they realize that the government does, indeed, intend to transport families to blasted Connaught, crackle with the high stakes intensity of a zoning board of appeals meeting. Sturman is just a good German, or Englishman, doing his job, and all the sexual menace that could infest his scenes with Maddy—the playwright even has her threaten him with witchcraft—goes unspent. Woody Gaul, also, as a dashing, affectionate Robert, cannot truly convey the awfulness of a man who loves his Irish wife but has only disdain for Ireland.
Marge Dunn as Solomon’s wife Susannah travels a poignant arc from shrewish nag to fierce and heartbreaking warrior, and the sensitive performances among the Irish childhood friends Pierce, Killaine and Maddy succeed in exposing the evil that poses as policy.