The title of Jake Jeppson’s searing, highly original drama “The Clearing” refers to a secluded, seemingly idyllic wooded area where two brothers have been periodically retreating for some “brotherly bonding” for 18 years. It’s a ritual between the pair that goes back to their childhood. As we learn, the location was also the origin of a dark, well-kept family secret which also goes back to their childhood. In one of the earlier scenes, the men have a contest to see which of them can throw a rock the farthest. One of them declares, “The loser TELLS her!” Tells who? Tells what? It’s a mystery, established early in the play, which keeps the audience wondering just what is going on beneath the surface. Something is clearly brewing.
Those two brothers are Les and Chris. As dissimilar as they are in physical appearance, they are also just as different in their personalities. Les (Brian McManamon) — who is openly gay– strikes us as tightly-wound and emotionally shuttered. By contrast, Chris (Brian P. Murphy) comes off as a rambunctious teenager trapped in a burly man’s body. At first, the audience sees Chris’ antics as rather harmless– no different than the brand of loud wackiness that we’ve seen in a generation’s worth of R-rated movies marketed to 17-year old boys. (An example of his adolescent behavior is how he teases Les about his sexual preferences.) Chris jokes about having “arrested development”– but as the play progresses, we suspect that his behavior may not be anything to laugh at. In other words, there may be some dark demons lurking within the man. (The pair’s mother Ella, played wonderfully by Allison Daugherty, tellingly reminds Les, “Silence from your brother is like the calm before the storm.”) We also meet Les’ new boyfriend, Peter (Gene Gallerano) — an earthy, charming photographer with a tendency to endearingly spout out self-help platitudes and Zen-like stuff such as, “You love me so much… So OWN that shit!” The contrast between Les and his potential life partner is striking, and at times we wonder just what the free-spirited Peter sees in the more inhibited Les. At the same time, Peter also seems to be pushing Ella into a catharsis of her own. Later on, as the audience slowly discovers the VERY complex (and occasionally disturbing) relationship between the two brothers, we suspect that Peter might just be both Les’ and Ella’s salvation from the proverbial “ties that bind”.
Directed by Josh Hecht, “The Clearing” boasts many superb and provocative performances from its dynamic four-actor cast. Daugherty, as the long-suffering family matriarch (“You get to this age, and everything closes for the winter.”), and Gallerano (almost metaphysical in presence), are revelations. In any given moment, so much seems to be happening simultaneously in several planes of existence. In one pivotal scene, one of the characters (The one you’d least expect, incidentally…) gets completely naked on stage. It’s clear symbolism for the truly bare emotions about to be displayed. The audience becomes truly mesmerized by the character’s revelations, as we gain some long-sought insight into the family dynamics between Les, Chris, and Ella. The climax of the play is truly shocking, as well as truly unexpected… and ultimately, the answer to the big mystery which is hidden in “the clearing” of the play’s title becomes almost secondary. By the time the secret is about to be revealed to the one who needs to hear it the most, we as the audience have already learned (and seen) much more than we’ve bargained for.
The World Premiere of “The Clearing” takes place from January 15 – February 9 at
Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46 St.) in NYC. For more info you can visit www.TheClearingPlayNYC.com.
(Photos by Hunter Canning.)