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By RAVEN SNOOK
In an age of rampant thongs, plunging necklines, and burlesque everywhere you turn, onstage nudity is rarely shocking anymore. But when Allison Daugherty takes her clothes off in The Clearing, an emotionally-charged drama by emerging playwright Jake Jeppson, you hear the audience collectively catch its breath.
Part of that is because her character, Ella, is a modest, religious mom to two grown sons. She's not the type to disrobe in front of anyone, let alone a virtual stranger like Peter, who is both a photographer and her son Les' lover. But it's the intimate vibe of the scene that really makes you feel like a voyeur as you watch Ella strip herself naked both literally and figuratively.
"It stops the show every night," says director Josh Hecht. "Watching her undress is like watching a text-less monologue, with its beat changes and turns, as we see a dozen thoughts go through her head with total clarity."
In a strange way, it's also a scene of seduction. Peter seduces Ella into doing something far beyond her comfort zone. Ella seduces Peter into sticking with Les, who, like his mom, desperately needs to come out of his shell. And, above all, it's a seduction of the audience.
Although Ella's age is never given, it's fair to say that she's at least a decade older than Daugherty. But agreeing to a nude scene is a big decision at any age, especially in a culture obsessed with youth and physical perfection. "My first thought was now I'm taking my clothes off, after two kids---you're joking!" says Daugherty, who also played Ella in an earlier incarnation of the play at Pleasantville, NY's Axial Theatre in 2012. "But in the very next show I did [after the first production], Tales from Hollywood at the Guthrie, I had to do the same thing. I was nude except for a scanty apron. In both cases it wasn't about being sexy; it was about bearing the soul more than the body."
Beyond the nudity, Daugherty had other concerns about playing Ella. The actors portraying her sons, Brian McManamon and Brian P. Murphy, are just 12 or so years her junior, and she worried she wouldn't read as old enough to be their mother. "Then I put my wig on and I thought, who am I kidding?" she says. "Plus Ella believes she's so much older than she actually is. As she says in the play: 'I'm an old, sad lady.' It's a state of mind really."
The Clearing has undergone some major changes since the Axial Theatre production. It was streamlined from two acts to one, a character was cut, the actors playing Les and Peter switched roles, and the entire tone has shifted. "The last version was more mysterious and poetic," Daugherty explains. "This rewrite is much more committed to the 'here and now,' as Josh says." Consequently, all of the characters, especially Ella, have evolved. "Ella was in much more denial before and she prayed a lot more," says Daugherty. "Developing the character was a really interesting challenge, having to let go of certain details because you can't save everything. I'd never played a role twice and adapted to an edited script. They're two different people in a way."
Yet the Ella-Peter scene has been a focal point in both incarnations. "Both in New York and upstate at Axial, you could hear a pin drop from the moment she takes off her shoes," says Hecht. "Recently, Allison has also discovered places where the scene can be playful, and it's been wonderful to see this whole other layer [emerge]."
Daugherty credits Jeppson's "beautiful and graceful writing," not the nudity, for making the sequence so potent. "It's like a love scene between two people who completely see one another," she says. "They get to a point of trust that is just so rare. The inner life is what makes them vulnerable, not being naked. There's no question of shock value. You've got to earn that stuff. Otherwise it's just silly."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Hunter Canning