Babbitt Shines in “The Clearing”

By Geary Danihy

Watching “The Clearing,” Square One’s latest offering, is like watching Derek Jeter play baseball with a pick-up team of weekend athletes. This uneven “story of Ireland,” directed by Square One’s artistic director Tom Holehan, suffers from a number of casting, scenic and staging faults but is saved by the exquisite acting of Lucy Babbitt, who plays the feisty, strong-willed Madeleine Preston, an Irish woman who has married into the English gentry, seventeenth-century immigrants to the Emerald Isle who quickly became its ruling class.

Unfortunately, many of the displaced gentry supported King Charles I against Cromwell in the English Civil War. A victorious Cromwell, now Lord Protector, takes his revenge by either hanging those who opposed him or forcing them to give up their lands. It is against this backdrop that Madeleine and her husband, Robert (David Victor), seek to live their lives, the growing tensions in their marriage a mirror of the forces seeking to tear Ireland apart.

Part of the problem with the play is that for the action to be understandable, playwright Helen Edmundson had to load in an inordinate amount of historical exposition. Thus, much of the dialogue is of the “this happened” and “this is happening” variety. However, what she has successfully dramatized is the Preston’s faltering marital relationship, as Robert seeks to steer what appears to be a middle course between contesting forces while Madeleine’s attachment to her homeland and its people inexorably leads to rebellion.

From the moment Madeleine appears on stage, her newborn son cradled in her arms, we sense that she is a force to be reckoned with. Babbitt’s portrayal of this loving wife forced by circumstances (and her husband’s betrayal) to take a stand is just about perfect. Her vivid, compelling stage work is some of the best I’ve seen in several years. She is the dynamo that provides almost all of the play’s energy, lighting up each scene and empowering the other actors who share the stage with her. Thus, Victor’s strongest scenes are when he is playing against Babbitt; when she is not on stage, his character seems to lose definition.

The same can be said for just about all the other members of the cast. Tess Brown plays Killaine Farrell, a fey young woman who is Madeleine’s friend. Her best scene is in the second act as Madeleine seeks to save Killaine from being deported as an indentured servant. Whereas Killaine’s fragile, other-worldly nature has been hinted at, it becomes manifest as Madeleine desperately fights to free her.

Tom Petrone plays Sir Charles Sturman, a man bent on seeing that Cromwell’s orders are carried out. His portrayal of the vindictive bureaucrat has a bit too much of Captain Hook in it, that is until he is confronted by Madeleine in the second act. All of a sudden, what had bordered on caricature becomes a full-blown characterization.

Babbitt has the same galvanizing effect on Mark Frattaroli, who plays Pierce Kinsellagh, a boyhood friend of Madeleine’s who now lurks in the forest as part of the growing rebellion against the Crown and its representatives. When he shares the stage with Keller (most memorably at the end of the first act) his character comes into clearer focus.

Rounding out the cast are Barry Hatrick and Ann Kinner as Solomon and Susaneh Winter, neighbors of the Prestons who are also faced with losing their lands. It is to these two actors that much of the expository load is given, which leaves them little room for character development. That said, they work well with what is there, creating a believable picture of a somewhat weak-willed husband and his strong-willed, loving wife faced with the prospect of losing all that they hold dear.

Kevin McNair has three roles – the Commissioner, a sailor and a judge, none of which he owns. Not even Babbitt’s magic can help to enliven any of these portrayals. In fact, given how Holehan has blocked the scene in which Madeleine fights to save Killaine, McNair is a distraction. Set at extreme stage right, the scene has the two actresses kneeling while, inexplicably, McNair (playing the sailor), turns his rather broad backside to the audience and remains immobile. Perhaps this was meant to convey the idea of the fate worse than death that hangs over Killaine, but all it does is draw the eye away from the action.

The play is also less than well served by John Gallagher’s scenery. The Preston’s house is suggested by a three-panel screen covered in nondescript cloth with a tapestry somewhat haphazardly draped over it. No problem with the minimalism, but wouldn’t the period (and the setting) have been better conveyed by using a screen with dark wood panels? And the clearing itself – some wood piled across the back of the upstage area and what looks like three large faux Christmas trees. Perhaps Gallagher could have worked with lighting designer Clifford Fava to come up with some effects that could have served better to convey forest and clearing.    
Whatever faults this production has, however, they must be balanced against Babbitt’s performance. If the math is done, the production falls into the plus column, for seeing her work is well worth the price of admission.

“The Clearing” runs through Saturday, May 29. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to www.squareonetheatre.com.

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