A Great Wildernessby Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Eric Ting. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Just make a life. . ."
In Stephen D. Hunter's new play, "A Great Wilderness" well-meaning people make just about as many mistakes as possible in the counciling of a young gay man. The intent of a truly nice religiously motivated souls is to convert a gay to God's way of being straight. Even though they acknowledge that so-called successes in their past have resulted in married men regressing to their "sinful" sides, that some have committed suicide rather than continue to live the lie of "straight" they continue their well-meant work until they themselves must admit that the failure of conversion is long since settled deep within themselves.
Walt, played beautifully and sensitively by Jeffrey DeMunn, is about to retire from this life. His cabin in the woods has been an intentional retreat from the outside world where he treats these younger men with their awful ways of life. He has taken on one last client, Daniel, played with charmless factionalism by Stephan Amenta, at his mother's request. Having arrived at his rural destination the boy becomes distracted and confused and finds himself lost in the woods miles from Walt's cabin and the play centers on the search for Daniel and its effect on five other people: Walt's former wife Abby, played by Mia Dillon; her current spouse Tim, played by Kevin Geer; Daniel's mother, Eunice, played by Mia Barron; and Janet, the sheriff, played by Tasha Lawrence.
There is a stark quality to the production. Bright lights between scenes which reveal the actor's movements accompanied by sharp sounds provide a strident accent to a subtle script. The set is angular and regular and the perfect background to an emotional maelstrom created by the situation and characters enclosed in this angular structure. Day and night have a similar sensibility in this place in the woods in a wilderness area in Idaho, presumably consumed in the shadows of both night and tall, densely planted evergreens. The play is consumed in shadows as well. We have enough information about Walt and Daniel to inform us of the probable outcome of their new relationship. It takes two acts and about two hours to confirm our suspicions and Hunter throws enough curve balls in the script to keep us guessing right up to the end in spite of the signposts of inevitability.
Set by Wilson Chin, costumes by Jessica Pabst, lighting by Matthew Richards, sound by Brandon Wolcott all contribute to director Eric Ting's vision of place, situation and people. Ting manipulates our emotions with his physical trappings for the play but it is the actors who deliver the playwright's messages. They are the envoys of truth and lies.
Dillon is a dynamo as Abby, truly delivering one of her best performances in years. Tolerant of her ex-husband's foibles, but never willing to acquiesce to them, she stands her ground well in every situation. As her vis-a-vis, Kevin Geer gives a nuanced performance that often seems to give away his character's deepest secrets which are never expressed or hinted at otherwise. This is one of those remarkable performances that actors sometimes find within themselves. He is constantly fascinating as Tim. Tim is always interesting.
Daniel's mother Eunice is given a wildly diffident reading by Mia Barron. It is hard to believe she loves her son, but she is certainly obsessed with him and Barron shows this in physical ways, always keeping her verbal sense of the character on an overheated back-burner. Sheriff Janet is almost a replica of the sheriff in the film "Fargo" played by Frances McDormand. Tasha Lawrence gives the character an efficiency and reliability that is unshakable and at the same time her voice and her physical mannerisms inspire the small bits of humor that creep into the play.
The two men who enliven the play are Daniel and Walt. Stephan Amenta has created a modest, meek, mentally inhibited young man who emerges from the wilderness chrysalis as a damaged butterfly ready for flight but unable to focus his wings. Still a delicate creature, his changes are as interesting as his initial dilemma. The strength of the play lies in Jeffrey DeMunn's incredible work as Walt. Every side of this man's personality and his personal history are brought to the forestage and laid across the apron. He is as exposed a character as any I've seen. Even his sudden inability to perform commonplace chores that are as endemic and ordinary as can be prove to be character revealing moments. The honesty and reality of DeMunn's playing at those points bring clarity to the greater issues of the play and to Walt's place in the scheme of things. This is a performance every young actor should see; it is an object lesson in the craft of acting.
I wasn't happy with the final moments of the play. I found it unfulfilling and a bit phony. That said, this is still an incredible evening of new theater and certainly one that is not to be missed.
A Great Wilderness plays on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival located in the '62 Center for Dance and Theatre at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through July 20. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line to www.wtfestival.org,