On Saturday afternoon, we went to see the show Greater Clements at the Lincoln Center. The show is about the fictional town of Greater Clements and what looks to be its eventual demise: the town is literally in the midst of voting on a proposition that would dissolve Greater Clements as a town completely. This is partly in reaction to wealthy “coastal elites” from California moving into massive mansions that are going up in the area, who have brought a culture that is unrecognizable in this small mining town in the middle of Idaho. The mine that the town centered around is dead now, though — fully blocked off and illegal to enter. Maggie runs a mining tour and museum that she is planning to shut down, and her unstable and mercurial son Joe comes back from a stint in Alaska, still unpredictable and terrifying both his mother and the locals who have known him all his life. Then, out of nowhere, an old teen love of Maggie comes into the picture and offers to take her away to start a new life hours away… but he’s been diagnosed with cancer. It’s complicated, strange, and a bit hard to swallow all these random tangents this story goes off on. It’s a story that seems to have underlying themes of the American Dream, mostly failed, the new taking over the old, and resistance to change and changing times.
What struck me the most about the play, which I frankly thought was a bit long, was Joe and the performance of the actor who played him. He has a dark past, having attacked someone and nearly destroying his life at an earlier age. He is described by his mother as having the intelligence and social skills of someone only 15-years old despite being 27 years old, and it’s clear that he suffers from an unmentioned mental illness, which seems to have had little treatment. It made me ache to see his monologue talking to his mother, where all he did was try to make her one ashtray after the next in his ceramics/pottery class after seeing how happy she was at the first one. After he had created what seemed like over a dozen for her, his mom responded that this was enough and said he needed to stop; in other words, what was wrong with him? And it suddenly hit him that no matter what he did, no matter what strides in self improvement he made and worked so hard on, he could only achieve so much and be recognized so much, and frankly, it would never be enough to build the perception that he was no longer “weird.” Perception is his reality: everyone thinks he’s “weird” or psychotic, and that would stick with him forever regardless of what actions he did to change it.
It’s clear he cares so much, loves so much, and wants so much to be better, to get better and be the best version of himself, but he realizes he falls short against his mother’s and society’s expectations. It was heartbreaking for me to see the parallels between Joe and Ed. In many ways, Ed was like this: he was cognizant he wanted to be better, to do the best he could. But sometimes, he tried too hard like the way Joe did with too many ash trays. Sometimes, his acts of generosity were just perceived as strange, excessive, even scary. Sometimes, his ways of helping were just overbearing. But he just wanted to be loved and accepted, and somehow, the world could not give that to him. That’s like with Joe in this play. They both have mental illnesses; they both have done things in their past that they weren’t proud of or that scarred their reputations. They both have parents that never fully recognized them and loved them the way they needed to be loved. Their parents perceived them as failures that they are embarrassed of. It was like a painful reminder of the short life my brother lived that has now ended.