A Great Wilderness
Zeitgeist Stage Company revisits the work of playwright Samuel D. Hunter ("A Bright New Boise") with a tale of an "ex-gay" counselor and his final boy. They are the two central characters in "A Great Wilderness," even if they aren't the only two who are feeling lost.
Walt (Peter Brown) is in his 70s and starting to become frail and forgetful. He limps after having taken a nasty fall some months earlier; his decline has alarmed those who care about him, such as Abby (Shelley Brown) and Tim (Thomas Grenon), a married couple with longstanding ties to Walt. They help him out at his remote cabin, which is situated deep in the forest in the Idaho mountains but, like Walt, they are hardly seeing chickens and have little interest in keeping the place running after Walt retires.
For three decades, Walt has been driven by deep personal and religious needs to bring groups of boys out to the cabin, where he can counsel them with patience and listen to what they have to tell him. It's a place with no Internet, and only an old-fashioned dial phone -- the kind of place conducive to thought. This summer Walt has only one customer, a boy named Daniel (Jake Orozco-Herman), and he's a last-minute addition to Walt's agenda, which was initially supposed to consist of packing up and closing the cabin down.
As it happens, both Walt and Daniel are facing unwelcome interventions in their lives. Walt is about to move into an assisted living facility, an upheaval that weighs heavily on his mind. Daniel, meantime, has been to several "reparative therapy" programs, all without success; his ambitious megachurch-founding father has rejected him and will hardly even acknowledge that Daniel is his son. The boy's mother, pushed to the brink, has turned to Walt out of desperation. Daniel himself is on edge, convinced that Walt is about to tie him up and subject him to electroshock.
But Walt has a gentle demeanor -- almost an accepting one, even though he's convinced that gays are "sinful." "Its important that you feel safe," he insists to Daniel time and again, and you wonder why it is Daniel should feel unsafe. But Walt isn't a creep or a monster; his desire to provide a safe space is genuine. As it happens, Walt has learned the hard way that preaching and force-feeding dogma are not effective ways to get people to open up and hear you. What works is actually quite the opposite: Offer an attentive ear until they're sure they are being heard, and then the words will flow.
Before that can happen, though, Daniel goes missing. Has he gone hiking and gotten lost? Has he run away? Walt struggles to remember the boy's parting words as Abby and Tim, increasingly frantic, set about helping him search for the boy. Gradually, their efforts include more people. Daniel's mother, Eunice (Christine Power) arrives, wracked with worry and guilt, and a park ranger named Janet (Kathy LaShay Berenson) keeps a coolly professional lid on the situation until a forest fire increases everyone's sense of urgency.
Hunter's sympathies lie with the gay boy here, as you might expect after seeing some of his other works (such as "A Bright New Boise" and "The Whale," which SpeakEasy produced a year or so ago). But Hunter is also sympathetic -- exquisitely so -- to Walt and Eunice, each of whom have to come clean about their most closely-guarded selves and shameful secret convictions.
Less sympathetically drawn are Tim and Abby. As Tim's helpful mask of concern peels away, turns into the kind of raving anti-gay zealot we've seen far too much of as the culture wars have dragged on through the years, from Prop 8 supporters to opponents of anti-bullying initiatives. Abby is, in some ways, the most detestable of the lot; her husband Tim might be a vicious faith-based bigot underneath, but you end up suspecting that Abby is little more than a sponge for attention with a taste for drama, happy to throw out racial slurs, boss everyone around, and "reluctantly" spill bad news with the glee of someone who lives for the fun of provocation.
The writing sometimes sketches and glosses rather than offer details or achieve the kind of piquant character core sample that tells you volumes with a few simple words. But where the script succeeds magnificently is with Walt, a character who comes pre-loaded with a rare generosity of spirit. Brown captures Walt to a T -- when, fairly late in the play, Walt hears of a boy who was at his cabin years ago and is told that he's the sort of father that former visitor had yearned for, you can believe it. You also know exactly what his silence is telling you when, asked about his own profound "change" into a straight man half a century earlier, he hesitates.
The rest of the cast invest their characters with similarly nuanced and layered performances under the direction of David J. Miller. The set, also by Miller, looks suitably rustic -- you can almost smell the woodsmoke and, with it, a trace of mildew. You can definitely think you smell the woodsmoke when lighting designer Michael Clark Wonson and sound designer J Jumbelic externalize Walt's fears and conflicts by dramatizing the forest fire that's raging miles away -- but, in Walt's imagination, getting too close for comfort. Jumbelic's work lends considerable sonic texture throughout, from the ring of that antiquated phone to the crunch of gravel under the tires of a car pulling up just outside. Wonson's lighting scheme douses the woods outside the window (which are rendered cheaply, but effectively) with cool blues and dashes furious reds within the cabin's confines once the characters get the fireplace going -- and their tempers along with it.
"A Great Wilderness" continues through May 21 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to http://zeitgeiststage.com