Some of us never get past the wounds of childhood. This is the crux of Jake Jeppson’s new play The Clearing. It gives us an unsettling love triangle. Two brothers, Les Ellis (Brian McManamon) and Chris Ellis (Brian P. Murphy) are stuck like glue since their shared childhood trauma, hinted at but not revealed till late in the play. The brothers are mutually bound to their single mother Ella Ellis (Allison Daugherty). What happened to their father is also not explained till near the end.
Chris, the straight brother, has just broken up with his girlfriend, probably because he suffers from a severe case of arrested development. His straightness is portrayed as Neanderthal, as Chris enjoys grunting and howling at the wind. His gay brother, Les, has the good fortune of having an attractive, caring man in love with him. Les’ lover Peter (Gene Gallerano) is a photographer, artistic, cerebral, and self-assured, and you might wonder what this dynamic man sees in emotionally afraid, unaccomplished Les.
Peter is the catalyst, the shaker upper, the one who invades this stunted family of three, locked in time. Ella wears Mom jeans and suppresses her feelings with prayer. She has never dated since her husband’s absence. She isn’t the clawing, domineering mother, but a shrink might suggest that she sets the example of stagnation for her boys. Yet she is crazy about her son’s lover Peter. There is no tired theme of “why can’t you like girls?” Ella likes cooking with Peter and wants to help with his photography show. Ten cent psychology: Maybe she is less threatened by a man than a potential daughter-in-law? She says she wants Peter to take Les away from home, though you sense how drawn she is to her son’s lover.
On the other hand, Chris is insanely jealous of his brother Les’ relationship with Peter; there lies the love triangle. Add Ella, and you have a love quadrangle. The brothers have “The Clearing”, their secret place where they threw rocks, camped out, and witnessed the unspeakable incident eighteen years ago. Chris wants to be there, play there, share secrets with Les forever.
The story is told in flashbacks, three months ago, nine months ago, one year ago. I am not sure why Mr. Jeppson chose this time sequence, except perhaps to justify Peter’s opening monologue about Abraham and God which turns out to be end of story. (I won’t spoil the ending here.) Peter’s words are cryptic at the play’s opening, but again Mr. Jeppson clears up their meaning in the conclusion of the play with Peter’s closing monologue. The flashbacks work.
There is a puzzling, disturbing scene when Ella goes to Peter’s photography studio to pose for him in the nude. I had conflicting feelings watching his lover’s mother (potential mother-in-law) undress before his intense eyes. This bonding was titillating, weird, and slightly repulsive at the same time. As the repressed Ella takes the bold leap of liberating herself in front of Peter, I wondered if this is her way of bringing Peter close to her bosom beside her sons, or is she competing for his attention? While naked, she tells Peter that Les and Chris believed in Santa Claus until high school. Is this remark a subliminal putdown of her sons’ immaturity, hoping Peter will find her more his equal? Peter tells Ella that she is beautiful. My own straightness thought that Peter might seduce her. He didn’t. Whatever your visceral reaction is to this scene, it is dramatic brilliance.
Ella doesn’t take away any change from her nakedness. She goes back to dressing frumpy. This belongs to the complexities of Ella and all the criss-crossing relationships. Mr. Jeppson leaves ambiguities, questions; nothing is wrapped in a neat bow. The dialogue is untheatrically real. Director Josh Hecht directs with an arc, with subdued emotions that rise and fortunately don’t explode. The cast is so at home with their characters that you can’t imagine others playing these roles.
I feel their pain. The artists have succeeded because this is what I expect from a play.
THE CLEARING – By Jake Jeppson; directed by Josh Hecht.
WITH: Allison Daugherty (Ella Ellis), Gene Gallerano (Peter), Brian McManamon (Les Ellis), Brian P. Murphy (Chris Ellis).
Daniel Zimmerman (Set Design); Gertjan Houben (Lighting Design); Tilly Grimes (Costume Design); Sam Kusnetz (Original Music & Sound Design); Lorin Latarro (Choreographic Movement); Emily Paige Ballou (Production Stage Manager); Josh Kohler (Production Manager); David Gibbs/DARR Publicity (Press Representative); Robert Levinstein of 22Q Entertainment (General Manager). At Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues in New York City. Tickets: 1-866-811-4111,More info and tickets: http://www.theclearingplaynyc.com/. Through February 9. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes without intermission.