Theater review: ‘In A Clearing’ at The Magnetic Theatre

CAN'T SEE THE FOREST: Mark is struggling to figure out the past that haunts him as he navigates his newly sober life. From left, Jered Shults, Thomas Traugaer and Emily Tynan McDaniel star in 'In A Clearing.' Photo by Tempus Fugit Design

Addiction, tragedy, failure and loneliness all collide in the world premiere of the play In A Clearing by Karen Saari. The rural Wisconsin setting is as desolate as the emotions of its characters in this rumination on lost lives, now onstage through Sunday, Sept. 9, at The Magnetic Theatre.

Andrew Gall directs this new play. From the casting choices to its casual tempo, the show embodies a slice-of-life approach. The characters are all somewhat unremarkable, flawed and resigned to just exist within their seemingly inescapable failings. In their world, the trivial can become fodder for epic personal trauma, while the more serious aspects of their actions are treated casually. Gall helps the cast walk the razor’s edge of realism versus melodrama.

Emily Tynan McDaniel plays Pam, who had long ago escaped this north woods town but has returned to help her parents cope with the death of her younger brother. The circumstances of his death are purposely made vague. A lot of denial fills the lives of the people inhabiting this world. McDaniel is a strong performer who keeps Pam real and relatable to the audience.

As Mark, Thomas Traugaer is the character we spend the most time with. He has been on the wagon for three months and is struggling to stay sober. He is also haunted by dreams that keep dragging him back to a night that he can’t remember. Along the way, clues present themselves, and as he and Pam slowly find solace in each other, it becomes obvious that his lost memory and her family tragedy are on a collision course.

An always-solid Kay Galvin trades her British dialect for a subtle northern Midwest accent that never slips into parody. For that, we have Jered Shults’ tragic comedy-relief character Roger. He’s a relentlessly happy-go-lucky-yet-sad drunk who brings a bit of the Makenzie Brothers from the film Strange Brew to his character. In fact, the characters and plot in general make us think that this could all be happening in the next town over from the Cohen brothers movie Fargo.

Anyone who grew up anywhere in rural America knows these characters. The world writ large is nowhere on their minds, and just making it through a day without a drink or without having to accept responsibility for bad life choices, is so all-consuming that they have little time for anything else. Ironically, the show opens with Pam and Mark engaged in a game of Trivial Pursuit, showing that they have knowledge of something more than their own misery. They simply don’t go beyond it being knowledge within a game — it somehow never translates to making their lives better in reality.

WHAT: In A Clearing
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Sept. 9, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. $16

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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