BWW Reviews: A Hint of Hope Beyond THE CLEARING
When a person is faced with the overwhelming beauty and quietude of the world around him, as seen through the crisp leaves of the surrounding trees or the rocks which reside on the steep slope below, leading into an unknown and unsought after abyss, one cannot help but look up at the stars and think about life - a free mind allowed to romp after abandoned dreams, or perhaps desires that have yet to be fulfilled. Without a need to say anything at all, a person relapses into himself, only deciding later on what is to be done in this game called "life." It is a moment in time that does not constitute the mundane and typical functioning of life. It is, indeed, an escape. Peter, the catalyst that brings about necessary change in Jake Jeppson's new play The Clearing, captures this feeling quite well in his statement towards the play's end: "There is no heaven. At least not yet. There's just this space where you wait for God to tell you what to do." This space simultaneously limits and liberates a person's ability to not simply live, but thrive - to do more than simply survive, yet live complaisantly until that change appears to make it better. The irony of the great outdoors and the psychologically trapped brothers who return, year after year, to this clearing as an almost essential asset of their absolute beings, makes for nothing less than a stunning and incredibly fascinating play.
Directed by Josh Hecht, The Clearing (making its world premiere at Midtown's very own Theatre at St. Clement's) tells the story of two brothers whose "escape" from the world happens one day through an exciting trip to the clearing with their father, yet ends in a tragedy which forces both Chris (Brian P. Murphy) and Les (Brian McManamon) to subsequently live in an inescapable world of sadness and psychological pain; they become the subhuman products of an event which occurred through no fault of their own. Their example is one of humanity slowly slipping away from two individuals who were once free to live before being subjected to wait for the unsuspecting hand of change to invade their miserable lives - to lift them from this depression which invariably brings them together, yet slowly feeds on their will to function as the years go by.
Taking F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation of a "past that year by year recedes before us" is the world in which these brothers are trapped: a bleak, inescapable brotherhood which is really based more on need than love. The secret of this childhood tragedy fundamentally binds both brothers in a dysfunctional relationship for eighteen years and counting, leaving Little Room for their mother (Allison Daugherty), and least of all for Les' new love interest, Peter (Gene Gallerano).
Peter serves as the catalyst in Jeppson's play - that person whose sole responsibility, it seems, is to bring about the change that is so necessary in the life of another; typically, such a character is portrayed as a martyr, and thus leaves the story when there is no longer any need for him. Peter also serves as the play's narrator, provoking the audience with certain metaphysical questions at different intervals of his story, providing a sort of guideline for those attending this tale - a scope through which to approach all those events and ideas which constitute this play. The play is already imbued an existentialist touch, alluding to the idea that people are bequeathed with their given lives without their consent and must thus make of it what they will, and Peter's responsibility as narrator creates that necessary connection between character and audience. He reminds each member of the audience that everyone must share in the turmoil that is occurring on stage - that, even though many have not experienced the tragedy faced by these brothers eighteen long years ago, there is something in each of our lives that can relate to what is happening upon the stage.
Everyone has suffered due to loss, death or simply because of loneliness or dissatisfaction with oneself and the way in which life has turned out; Peter simply invites the audience to ponder, for example, what it means to direct the focus on these aspects of our own lives towards the sad circumstance that is Les and Chris. So, when Peter positions himself in the center of this family, he begins to rattle cages that, for his sake, were better left alone. Gene Gallerano described his character as "electricity in water," and with this force will someone clearly get hurt.
The play continues on towards its end, and gradually the plot is disclosed in greater detail; this happens until the audience encounters a scene very much like the one with which the play began: that of the two brothers throwing rocks into a nearby stream, testing who is able to throw his the farthest. One of the aspects of this play which makes it so clever is its use of a non-linear storyline - the end is shown at the beginning with very little context, and the story progresses in the sense of its moving further and further backwards into the past. So, the plot unfolds month by month, leaving many questions unanswered and things unexplained until the very end, at which point the audience is meant to give a solid (if possible) interpretation of what Chris meant to do by leading his mother to the place of his mental decline.
The movements of the characters also reflect this wayward sequence of time, as they are choreographed to appear almost as puppets onstage, their strings being pulled to fling them once again to the month prior as an outfit is changed or the setting of the current scene switched. As simple as this decision may be, it does wonders for this show; it really does show how ineffective we are at controlling our own lives, as each character is perpetually thrown into the past until some sort of decision must be made towards the play's end.
Even though each character wants to take control of his or her life - to "see and be seen," as Allison Daugherty explained - and just make sense of all that is happening, time (regardless of its direction) shows just how trapped these individuals really are. Ella, the boys' mother, possesses unfailing faith, the brothers are bound by a secret that they do not want, yet which they unfortunately share, and Peter slowly extricates Les' soul - his humanity - from the shell he hides behind. Ultimately, a change is made, but not really in the sense of the latter's ability to "find himself." Like the passing of time, he seems to just seems to be moving with the tide, reacting to what has happened to the point of the play's end. He does not want to leave, he does not want to do anything but stay in the clearing and help his brother. Yet, he ultimately chooses a life apart from Chris because it seems the right thing to do.
The Clearing is one of those plays which ends with a lesson - a moral, if you will, for the audience to take with them after the show has ended. Again, this is up for interpretation, as this idea of "the clearing" may represent different things to different people. Overall, though, it ends with this sense of hope that was not really ever there before. There were moments in the play where people seemed to be living and moving forward, but what happens at the end is more of an expression of progress and fulfillment than ever before witnessed. So, what is this lesson to be learned? That life is unfair, and people must deal with the cards they have been given the best they can? Or perhaps that people cannot escape the nature of their own beings, forever to remain prisoners of their own minds unless some brave soul, seemingly God-sent, comes to rescue them?
Brian McManamon explains what he understands this lesson to be. He states that, in the midst of all that occurs in the play, that "Everyone needs to make that big leap - to come forward and say what's going on. Just say what's on your mind. I think that these characters would have benefited from that." This is so very true. When I questioned Angelica Capotorto, a person who came to the show, what she thought to be the moral of this story, she stated that "The Clearing, to me, means the chance to start over - to begin with a clean slate. It is about these characters' unwilling reflection of all that has happened to them as they reminisce about what they could have done."
Aside from its plot, everything about Jeppson's play is amazing. The set is as realistic as can be, and does well to convey that feeling of being outdoors and surrounded by wilderness, even when characters momentarily step inside; it is as though this idea of "the clearing" and all it represents is a perpetual, haunting presence, even if only in the background during a particular scene. Everything else was so simple that it just WORKED - costumes and sound were both great, and all the work that was put into this production (from the efforts of actor and behind-the-scenes personnel alike) was well worth it. The show, as already said, has this sort of existential feel to it, and is truly meant to make an individual think. It is a very profound play, and there should be more of them gracing every stage. Well done, everyone.
The Clearing began on January 15th, with a January 19th opening, and will continue thru February 9th. All performance are held at Theatre of St. Clement's, located at 423 West 46th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. The performance schedule is as follows: Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. General tickets are $49.50, while a limited amount of student rush tickets are available at the box office before each performance. Tickets may be purchased online at www.theclearingplaynyc.com, or by calling 1-866-811-4111. For a better idea of what to expect, please click on the link below for a trailer of the play. Enjoy the show!
Trailer Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHKfaPW3qvQ
Photo Credit: Hunter Canning
First quote obtained from the script of The Clearing, by Jake Jeppson
Second quote obtained from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald