These two options are clearly polar opposites, but Mr. Jeppson’s carefully scripted play, as performed by a very strong cast of four under Josh Hecht’s fine direction, leaves room for either interpretation in the end.
The story unfolds around two brothers, Les (Brian McManamon) and Chris (Brian P. Murphy), both in their twenties, who, years earlier, were privy to a highly traumatic incident that took place at their secret hideaway, a clearing in the woods overlooking a steep canyon that offers up both literal and metaphoric echoes. (The evocative set design is by Daniel Zimmerman, and the equally evocative sound design is by Sam Kusnetz, who also provided original music).
Throughout the years, the brothers have clung together, sharing their secret with no one, not even their mother, Ella (Allison Daugherty), who nonetheless has suffered the consequences by becoming — as she describes herself — “an old sad lady.” Ella sticks closely to home or church, and spends far too much time worrying about her sons, especially Chris, who is subject to bouts of anxiety and depression, coupled with outbursts of anger. For Chris, the ghosts he conjures up are not metaphors at all, but are very real indeed, and Ella feels thwarted from helping him until and unless he opens up to her.
The only one who can calm Chris is his younger brother Les, with whom he shares protective rituals involving marshmallows and partly-remembered childhood songs. Les has his own problems, though. He has responded to their shared trauma by turning inward, isolating himself emotionally from others and holding tightly to his own feelings. Chris’s demands for his attention are almost more than he can bear, but he cannot face what he perceives will be dire consequences if he breaks away.
Into this battered family picture steps Peter (Gene Gallerano), who has recently become Les’s boyfriend and who sets himself up to rescue Les and, later, Ella. Peter also serves as go-between with the audience by narrating the story through scenes that move backward through time (indicated by Lorin Latarro’s choreographed movements that play out like the rewinding of a film.)
The Clearing is blessed with a wonderful cast, with Ms. Daugherty a standout as the self-deprecating and long-suffering Ella, who has long felt cut off from her sons. “The maternal instinct never leaves you,” she says. “Just your kids.” Through Peter’s eyes, your heart goes out Ella and to Les, but you also recognize that it is Chris who has been damaged the most — and you hope that the playwright has figured out a way to save them all.
Yet Mr. Jeppson offers us no easy answers. The hopeful interpretation requires us to accept an almost Dickensian coincidence, but the gothic path leads to a bleak landscape indeed. I can imagine some very interesting post-viewing conversations between the optimists and skeptics in the audience.