NEW YORK — During one of the many subtly revealing moments of “Greater Clements” — to my thinking, the year’s best new play — a Japanese American teenager played by Haley Sakamoto explains that her family was interned in a government camp during World War II. Nope, doesn’t sound plausible, says Joe, the young white Idahoan (Edmund Donovan) to whom she offers the account.
Sakamoto’s Kel shrugs off Joe’s insistence that he would have heard of such a significant travesty if it had happened. But we know that these things do occur in this country — that they are still going on, in a new permutation, on the southern border. One also senses that in Joe, playwright Samuel D. Hunter is portraying an all too common American trait: a failure to remember the past. Which, of course, as the philosopher said, means we are doomed to repeat it.
That scene is woven into Hunter’s moving, consistently absorbing drama of an Idaho mining town whose identity and history are disappearing, like the faces in an old Polaroid photo. Built around the hard-knock life of Maggie, who runs a threadbare tourist museum and is embodied with impeccably flinty authority by Judith Ivey, the play takes poignant stock of industrial midnight in one of America’s craggier outposts. And what Hunter, director Davis McCallum and the cast manage to say about it will bolster your compassion for careworn survivors everywhere, struggling to carry on.
Hunter, the author of such potent, character-driven portraits of the modern American West as “A Bright New Boise” and “The Whale,” has created his most deeply searching play yet. In Lincoln Center Theater’s bigger off-Broadway playhouse, the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, where “Greater Clements” marked its official opening Monday night, Hunter’s story encompasses the challenges both macro and micro in American life. As the economy shifts from products excavated from mines to those excavated from the mind, the character of the nation changes, too, especially for those who traditionally depended on their muscles for a living. (Full disclosure: My wife works for Lincoln Center Theater’s landlord, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which has no responsibility for the show.)
In Greater Clements, a fictional backwater and the locus of a tragic footnote to mining history, the playwright depicts a locality literally wiping itself off the map. Wealthy Californians have been buying up property and asserting their mammon-granted right to pretty views; they have pushed through a law banning locals from putting cars up on cinder blocks in their yards. In retaliation, the locals pass a referendum to dissolve the town government. The class alienation that’s unleashed plays out in “Greater Clements” in an overwhelmingly sorrowful final scene, when an arriviste from the West Coast (Kate MacCluggage) attempts to comfort Maggie, oblivious to the devastating reasons for her pain.
Injury of all varieties permeates this story, particularly concerning Maggie’s caring for mentally ill Joe, who’s come home after a life on the streets and, in Donovan’s superb portrayal, is both aware and resentful of his limitations. It is in Maggie’s plight that Hunter elucidates the most affecting paradox of “Greater Clements”: Surrounded in her museum by the battered hardware of the town’s hardscrabble better days, she is a prisoner in a place that can no longer sustain her, even as a former lover (Ken Narasaki) offers the possibility of escape.
Physically, the circumstances could be better for the nearly three-hour production. To accommodate the hydraulics that elevate a central platform and allow for scenes in the now-shuttered mine, set designer Dane Laffrey has equipped the stage with floor-to-ceiling steel pillars. The supports are as problematic as they are functional, for they obstruct sight lines for large portions of the audience; in several key scenes, I found myself staring at a pole.
This is unfortunate, because in a play that so sharply delineates character, where eyes and other features turn at any given nanosecond, you want to see and hear everything. And with actors as good as Ivey, Donovan and Sakamoto — the latter playing a perplexed teenager traveling with her grandfather as her father marinates in alcohol — you’ll want to savor their every move.
This is especially so with Ivey, who has worked onstage for decades, always conveying a sense of groundedness that plays as truth. Her Maggie is a woman wrung out by anxiety and denial of pleasure: She’s as aridly eroded as the rugged countryside. The actress is of such finely honed instinct, and Hunter’s conception is so keenly devised, that this Maggie can seem at once the object of our deepest sympathies — and the architect of her own unhappiness.
You yearn for nights in the theater when the people you encounter on the stage not only manage to surprise you but also follow you out the door, walk you down the street and take up residence in your consciousness. Greater Clements may fade away, but “Greater Clements” certainly doesn’t.
Greater Clements, by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Davis McCallum. Sets, Dane Laffrey; costumes, Kate Voyce; lighting, Yi Zhao; music and sound, Fitz Patton. With Nina Hellman and Andrew Garman. About 2 hours 50 minutes. $82. At Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 56th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.