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A CurtainUp Review
The Clearing
Jordan G. Teicher
"What if we — like humanity — could somehow harness all those flashes together to Make a sort of cosmic Morse code when things are bleak.Dear God. Stop. We are still here. Stop. Have you forgotten us? Send a sign. Stop." "— Peter
The Clearing
(L-R): Brian P. Murphy and Brian McManamon(Photo by Hunter Canning)

The Clearing is the story of a suffocatingly tight-knit family's journey from misery to solace, spurred by the influence of a newcomer. "Yup, it's one of those," Jeppson joked in an interview with Adam Szymkowicz. And yes, true to form, The Clearing is "one of those."

But the play is so deeply felt, so expertly acted and directed, there's no mistaking it with others in its genre. It is a work of rare power and emotional realism that deftly navigates the lines where love, loss and dependence intersect.

Ella Ellis (Allison Daugherty) and her sons Chris (Brian P. Murphy) and Les (Brian McManamon), the troubled threesome at the center of the story, are trapped, haunted and bound together by grief. But the nature and extent of this bond are not immediately apparent. They're revealed slowly and non-chronologically by Les' boyfriend Peter (Gene Gallerano) in a complicated narrative architecture that serves the story remarkably well.

The action centers on the clearing, a sacred natural space where Les and his gregarious brother Chris have long come, in a sacred sort of ritual, to hang out. The exclusivity of this space and relationship is broken when Les introduces Peter, his first "adult" partner, into the mix. Peter is a photographer, and it's no coincidence that he ultimately begins to shine a light on the Ellis' profound issues.

Les and Chris have an innocent, loving and deeply complicated relationship. Both are damaged goods, but Chris, with his occasional hallucinations and manic spurts, is more visibly so. Jocular and abrasive one moment, broken and weeping the next, Murphy's performance is wonderfully dynamic and memorable. Les' fear and guardedness, meanwhile, is brought beautifully to life by McManamon. Together, they create a tremendous chemistry.

Allison Daugherty, reprising the role she originated at Poughkeepsie's Axial Theatre, is an equally great force. In an especially powerful scene, Ella poses nude for Peter's camera, exposing herself both physically and personally. The vulnerability and strength Daugherty communicates here is a triumph.

Just as the Ellis' are not two-dimensionally flawed, Peter is not flatly perfect. As much as he loves Les, he is more impatient and less sympathetic to his trauma than he should be, and it almost tears them apart. But his determinedness to show the emotionally debilitated Les to "the whole world" is ultimately a gift.

The Theater at St. Clement's, another space with its own sacred meaning and history, is an appropriate venue for this drama to unfold. Daniel Zimmerman's set, an earthy thing concocted from natural materials, is gorgeous and, in its realism, perfectly complements what's happening onstage.

And realism it is, a reminder of how effective and convincing a mirror to life theater can be when done just so. Jeppson is remarkably attuned to the manifestations of grief, and the emotional tapestry he weaves here, one made of anger, sorrow and denial, feels true. Meanwhile, he saves The Clearing from over-saturation with carefully placed and natural humor. His characters suffer, but, mercifully, they also laugh.

The journey that follows, from secrecy to transparency is painful and destructive in its own way. It's a testament to Jeppson's intuition for family dynamics that he's able to demonstrate how tearing down a carefully built house of cards comes with consequences.

The New York City premiere of The Clearing is the production this material deserves, firmly establishing its playwright, a recent graduate of Yale's MFA program, as a new voice worth noticing.

The Clearing
Written by Jake Jeppson
Directed by Josh Hecht
Cast: Allison Daugherty (Ella Ellis), Gene Gallerano (Peter), Brian McManamon (Les Ellis), Brian P. Murphy (Chris Ellis)
Set Design: Daniel Zimmerman
Original Music/Sound Design: Sam Kusnetz
Lighting Design: Gertjan Houben
Costume Design: Tilly Grimes
Production Manager: Emily Paige Ballou
Fight Chreographer: Nic Grelli
Choreographic Movement: Lorin Latarro
Running Time: 100 minutes
The Theater at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036, (866) 811-4111.
From 1/15/14; opening 1/19/14; closing 2/09/14
Performance times: Tue, Wed, Thu 7:30, Fri & Sat 8:30, Sun 3:30
Ticket cost: $49.50 with some student tickets for $15
Reviewed by Jordan G. Teicher at 1/18/2014 performance.
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