In “The Clearing” — Jake Jeppson’s play about siblings and secrets, now in a stunning premiere at Pleasantville’s Axial Theatre — the Ellis brothers couldn’t be less similar.
Les Ellis is reserved, private; his brother, Chris, is physical, loud, emotional. Chris gobbles marshmallows; Les nibbles them.
Les doesn’t care about some things, a trait he hates about himself; Chris cares too much about everything, a trait for which he offers little in the way of apology.
Still, the blood tie between them is ironclad, nowhere stronger than in this clearing on a bluff overlooking a 200-foot drop. They can be themelves here; they have secrets here.
If the Ellis men are works in progress, their mother, Ella, knows who she is.
She doesn’t salt the water to make it boil faster, she says, while on her knees in prayer. She can wait. But there are prayers — and questions — Ella wants answered.
Enter Peter, Les’ lover, a man as open as the Ellises are closed. Before long, he has managed to force the issue, to crack open those secrets and propel the action forward.
Jeppson, an emerging playwright about to graduate from Yale’s MFA program, tells the first half of the story backwards, from “yesterday” to “a year ago yesterday,” in a brisk 42-minute first act that raises plenty of questions. Act two moves in a more linear fashion to a tantalizing conclusion that begs for one more scene, one glimpse into how the characters will move on from this moment. Apparently, Yale has taught Jeppson to leave them wanting more.
Josh Hecht directs a uniformly fine cast with a steady hand, never more so than in one scene involving a character’s full nudity. The choice is not made for shock value — although the effect can be a bit jarring, in a church hall, in Pleasantville — and it goes straight to the character’s emotional state.
In performance, Brian McManamon is stoic as Peter, while Francesco Campari brings a scattered sort of menace to Chris. Gene Gallerano’s Les is steady and efficient and Mark Gorham is appropriately cryptic as Daniel.
Allison Daugherty is the standout here. In Jeppson’s best-written character, she gives a portrayal that is honest, natural and fearless. In her capable hands, Ella is haunted, anguished, confused and real, wistfully asking her long-gone husband: “Where did you go? I was right there in our bed. You could have turned to me any night. I would have listened.”
Axial’s creative departments have all outdone themselves, making “The Clearing” one of the most complete and well-mounted productions in memory at Axial.
Kina Park’s set is breath-taking and commands half of the St. John’s Episcopal Church hall. A large platform is ringed by saplings and twigs and branches and leaves, with an apron of earthen dressing making it look for all the world like a clearing over a high cliff. Two over-sized boxes are faced to look like large logs but are called on to be beds and a kitchen island, too.
Sam Kusnetz’s sound design, Leah Rogers’ costumes and Gertjan Houben’s lights, too, help to create a sense of place.
“The Clearing” may not be for everyone. Knowing there’s nudity in the play might be off-putting for some. But Jeppson’s multi-faceted characters weave a compelling story about a family inching forward after loss.
‘The Clearing’ Axial Theatre, St. John’s Episcopal Church, 8 Sunnyside Ave., Pleasantville. Weekends through May 13. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. $20. Order here. 800-838-3006. Go to the Axial Theatre website.
Photo by Leslye Smith: Francesco Campari, Allison Daugherty, and Gene Gallerano as the Ellis Family in “The Clearing.”