Sunday, February 02, 2014

Play: The Power of the Word

A Great Wilderness, by Samuel D. Hunter, Directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Repertory, through February 16, 2014.

One of the benefits of having season tickets at the Rep is that you end up going to plays you'd never really consider if they were standing alone. I mean, imagine this conversation.

Me: Hey, it's a Sunday afternoon - want to go a play?
You: Sure. What's it about?
Me: It's about a man retiring from his job running a gay conversion therapy camp in Idaho.
You: You mean ...
Me: Yeah, convincing young men not to be gay.
You: Oh.
Me: No, really, it's pretty good.
You: I bet.
Me: And it deals not only with gay conversion but end of life issues.
You: Yeaaaahhhh. I'm sorry, I just remembered I have an anvil in the oven and can't make it.

And yeah, on paper it looks like this could go horribly, horribly wrong, a cringeworthy very special Lifetime movie with a moral lesson for us all. But it is not like that because writer Hunter plays fair by his characters and refuses to let them fall (mostly) into caricature or give them the easy way out. He builds their nature brick by brick and makes them accessible, even likable. And that, given the subject matter, makes them all the more challenging.

OK, here's the set-up (with spoilers). Walt (Michael Williams, brilliant in the role) has been running a camp for troubled (read gay) young men up in Idaho for thirty years, and is finally listening to his ex-wife and fellow camp founder  Abby (Christine Estabrook) and is about to move to a retirement home, a phrase he hates. Walt agrees to take on one more young man, Daniel (Jack Taylor, also honest and engaging) , who disappears soon after arrival, even before Walt's ex and her current husband Tim (Rep alum R. Hamiliton Wright) arrive. Then Daniel's mom Eunice (Mari Nelson) shows up, along with the park ranger (Gretchen Krich) who is leading the search. Responsibility for the young man's disappearance spills into the fate of the camp and the responsibility of what Walt has done over the years. Much cognac is consumed. Oh, and then there is a forest fire.

Walt is erudite, thoughtful, and caring, plagued by failing facilities and a frustration with accepting his age. He is also very well-meaning. He keeps a huge volume on hand in his cabin on a stand, but it is dictionary, not a bible. In fact, no one prays onstage, no one quotes scripture at each other. These are very secular Christians, a more real-world type that dodges the hypocrisy leveled at those who abide by chapter and verse. Walt is frustrated by people assuming that his conversion methods involve shouting and electroshock. He's a much more gentle creature whose intentions are good even if his goal is questionable.

Walt uses words and feels those words leaving him as a sign of his own mortality. Abby. by comparison, has her own words and considers them her property, her way of enforcing her will on the surrounding world. Tim is Walt's replacement in her life, and there is a mirror between the two men, of what might have been had Abby and Walt remained together. Eunice is stressed out and burned out by dealing with her son, yet is not challenged as she slips into depression building her own fort and defense with her words. Janice, the ranger, is the most cartoon-like of the characters, coming off as a bit Fargo-esque, and uses words without thinking of their effects.

Were this an Albee play, all would be trapped in that tiny cabin and the stress kicked up by multiple rounds of accusation and counter-accusation until something snaps and everything goes to hell. But Hunter allows the characters the room to move, to leave, to go off-stage, to regroup, and to think. The delivery is low-key and human,as opposed to theatrical. And that makes this an excellent play.

It has its own weaknesses. The ending is abrupt, and I don't know a way to address it. There is no rising action, no swell of music, no look-to-the-future optimism or ironic fatalism. Just a sudden blackout that confuses and makes you want to know more. The audience does not know when to applaud. As we done? Where did we go with all this? What was this all about?

Where I ended up was with John the Baptist (what?). I know this is weird, but there are hints throughout the text. Walt lives his whole life and finds that someone else gets the revelation he has been seeking. Someone else gets the surety of faith. He discovers, much like John that he was put on earth to be the opening gig for Jesus. Ultimately, this play is a question of reviewing one's life and trying to determine if it has meaning. Its a big-ticket question wrapped in a play that I have trouble describing otherwise.

And it is worthwhile, an excellent example of theatre pushing the envelope in both presentation and subject matter without going over the top. It is a very good play, but I think a very tough sell.

More later,