`Clearing' depicts a dark history

Skillful direction aids Colonial Players' intense production

Arundel Live

Review

January 25, 2001|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It could have been the snow or the dreary subject matter that left several seats empty at Colonial Players' theater Sunday.

Some subscribers could have been put off by the play's focus on ethnic oppression in mid-17th-century Ireland, when Oliver Cromwell's oppressive English colonization policies prevailed. But that would have been unfortunate, because it is precisely this dark history that makes English playwright Helen Edmundson's 1993 play "The Clearing" such an absorbing, emotionally charged drama.

That Edmundson is a feminist whose sympathy obviously lies with the Irish lends passion to the development of her characters. The dramatist uses light and dark effectively, with dark events looming in the riveting opening scene outside the home of Madeleine and Robert Preston.

Madeleine's gentle best friend, Killane Farrell, knows what is coming as she speaks with young rebel Pierce Kinsellagh, an old friend who views Madeleine's pregnancy by her English husband as "poison in her body."

The scene shifts inside, where English landowner Robert Preston and his Irish Catholic wife celebrate the birth of their first child. Their joy is soon interrupted by a visit from their English royalist neighbors, Solomon and Susaneh Winter, who have heard frightening rumors.

Having killed the English King Charles I, the Puritan conquerors have embarked on Cromwell's resettlement plans to drive the Irish guerrillas and defeated English royalist landowners out of Ireland. Unable to believe that his countrymen would enforce such edicts in County Kildare, Robert visits the governor, Sir Charles Sturman, with Solomon Winter, where they learn the truth from Sturman, who is menacing to Solomon and an enigma to Robert.

Refusing to believe what he has heard, Robert cautions Madeleine to remain inside the house for safety.

The free-spirited Madeleine cannot be caged, however, and leaves to seek the truth from her friends Killane and Pierce. High drama ensues, portending what will come.

As the situation worsens, we feel the desolation and desperation of the Irish that culminates for Madeleine in the abduction of Killane, whom she is determined to save. Madeleine pleads with Robert, now grown selfish, concerned only with holding onto his land despite the human cost. Finally it is Madeleine who confronts the governor to plead for Killane's return.

Under the skilled direction of Colonial's Mary Fawcett Watko, every turn of the plot is revealed in sharp contrast, each scene building on what has preceded. Chesapeake's theater-in-the-round configuration requires extra time for scene changes, and this constraint serves to increase tensions.

Watko breathes life into the unforgettable women crafted by dramatist Edmundson, their strength approaching that of classic Greek heroines. Colonial's cast members almost inhabit their characters, seeming to have transported themselves to 17th-century Ireland in manner and brogue.

In her Chesapeake debut as the gentle Killaine Farrell, Heather Quinn is magic, her lilting brogue turning her spoken lines into poetry. Eric Lund delivers an equally compelling portrait of Irish rebel Pierce Kinsellagh.

As Susaneh Winter, Terri Madden gives a tour-de-force performance that grows from an angry Englishwoman cursing her fate and coolly indifferent toward Madeleine, to a woman of enormous courage who defies the law for a higher justice. As Madeleine, CeCe McGee-Newbrough displays all the tenderness, intense love, cunning and fire her character possesses.

Mac Bogert is convincing in the challenging role of the conflicted aristocrat Robert Preston, whose swagger conceals his lack of strength as he is torn between love and hate for his wife.

Frank B. Moorman gives a sensitive portrayal of idealistic English royalist Solomon Winter. Cary Myles is believable as the governor, Sir Charles Sturman, and Ray Fulton displays versatility in the triple roles of commissioner of transplantation, a sailor and appeal judge.

"The Clearing" continues Thursdays through Sundays, through Feb. 17, at the theater, 108 East St. in Annapolis. Call the box office at 410-268-7373 to order tickets.

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