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Williamstown's 'Great Wilderness' a compelling look at young playwright's work

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'A Great Wilderness' at Williamstown Theatre Festival

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There’s a great wilderness out there in the state of Idaho that the rising young playwright Samuel D. Hunter has been mining for stories for his increasingly impressive roster of plays. Now residing and writing in New York City, the native Idahoan’s works are remarkable and empathetic character studies of people you might not ever get the chance to meet.

In “The Whale” we meet a seriously obese man who’s run out of self-esteem and lives out his existence in an unkempt, food-strewn apartment. In “The Few,” the playwright focuses on the discontented founder of a newspaper for the disconnected, alienated truckers who pass through his state on their way to other destinations. And in “A Great Wilderness,” which is enjoying its East Coast premiere as part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Nikos Stage season, we are introduced to Walt, a man approaching retirement who has dedicated his life to providing conversion therapy to young gay men whose families have dispatched them to Walt’s dilapidated camp deep in the woods or who have turned up there themselves in sexual confusion and despair.

Walt, in a nuanced and brave performance by Jeffrey DeMunn, sincerely believes in the rightness of what he is doing, based in large part on his Christian upbringing which in these parts of the country can easily be described as “fierce.” Walt’s beliefs are so ingrained within him that change would be virtually impossible, a feeling shared by his cohorts in his efforts, Abby and Tim, a couple with what turns out to be a convoluted history with Walt. This part of the world bears no resemblance to the so-called “post-gay” world encountered by many in our nation’s urban centers. In this wilderness, shame and self-loathing cast long shadows, perhaps none as lengthy as Walt’s. Walt in his youth was once in love with another boy, but in guilt determined to go straight, and in subsequent years has had to live with the knowledge that he was unable to save his own son, Isaac, from his own sexual confusion with devastating results.

But we learn that Walt’s approach to conversion therapy is quite simple and decidedly non-traditional. Instead of employing electro-shock therapy or other high-handed tactics, Walt relies a little bit on scriptural readings and more on letting those he calls “his boys” tell their stories and express their fears and concerns in a safe environment. It turns out Walt doesn’t keep track of his success rate; and the rare feedback he occasionally receives from former clients expresses genuine appreciation for his willingness to listen. It is the type of opportunity he wishes his son had, and probably reflects Walt’s own yearning for a similar opportunity in his own life, at a time when such a subject was only ridiculed or condemned in the environs of Coeur D'Alene. And although Hunter does not make mention of it in his play, Boise in reality was the site of one of the greatest police entrapment cases that saw a number of lives significantly ruined during a particularly brutal crackdown on alleged gay activity in the late 1950’s.

Walt’s world in this play is suddenly cracked open when his final client, a shy, confused and terrified 16-year old named Daniel disappears into the wilderness while under Walt’s care. Walt’s increasing forgetfulness and growing frailties may have made him miss some clues in the young man’s behavior as his two associates point out, who also have their own agendas in wanting to see Walt move into an assisted living facility. As the search for the boy extends into the morning of the following day and is joined by Janet, the local ranger, a feisty, non-nonsense type played with an amusing rigorousness by Tasha Lawrence, the boy’s fate appears more grim, a potentially final negative coda to Walt’s career.

The boy’s mother, Eunice, eventually shows up to shed some light on Daniel’s story, revealing that her husband, a self-styled grassroots minister with a growing congregation, has been ashamed of his son for most of his life, sending him to a never-ending series of therapists and counselors. Even Eunice herself, in the comfortable role of the well taken care of minister’s wife, reveals strong and disturbing feelings about her son herself, unable to reconcile her love for him with the expectations of her God and the demands of her husband. When she reveals to Walt how she would really like to situation to end, the moment is stark, shattering and shocking, helped in large part by Mia Barron’s able performance as the genteel, but unexpectedly tightly coiled mother.

Much of the fireworks can be found in scenes between Walt and Abby, played with an unforgiving ferocity by the capable Mia Dillon. Her Abby is unapologetic for her politically-incorrect verbiage and vociferously impatient with Walt’s refusal to leave the camp, revealing a long-standing relationship filled with not only disappointments and betrayals, but a certain modicum of shame as well. As her much-younger spouse, Kevin Geer’s Tim is a master of hesitation and indecision, the only obvious choices available to him in such a relationship. It goes unsaid, but one wonders if Tim himself didn’t start out as one of Walt’s “boys” and ended up married to Abby following his own determination to go straight. Geer portrays Tim as at one time having been an acolyte of Walt’s who remains more concerned for Walt’s feelings and welfare than his wife seems to be.

Stephen Amenta reveals a touching tenderness to the 16-year old Daniel, both in real time scenes and a key flashback that demonstrates Walt’s ability to quickly establish a genuine connection with his “boys.” There is a question about what Daniel’s last words were to Walt when he left the lodge before he went missing, which Walt’s short term memory seems to have forgotten. Once those words are revealed, however, they out be quite simple and for the audience unexpected, but simultaneously attest to Walt’s best attributes.

Eric Ting, the Associate Artistic Director of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater, has provided thoughtful direction that allows Hunter’s play to progress at its own pace. I overheard several people during the intermission commenting on the lackluster timing, but Hunter, like his rising contemporary, this year’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Annie Baker, likes his plays to proceed at a more natural speed, with characters revealing more and more about themselves as an organic process in the play, rather than through carefully-disguised exposition. Ting realizes that this is a character study about Walt and the decisions he has made in his life that may very well have limited his own opportunities and negatively impacted those around him, all for the higher purpose of trying to adhere to a sincere religious belief.

Wilson Chin’s set design recreates an aging lodge in the deep woods, outfitted with outdated but functional furniture, and filled with reminders of its isolation, including a rotary dial phone and an 80’s era television without local reception that only plays over and over a video of the assisted living center where Walt is to be relocated. Matthew Richard’s lighting captures the silence of the woods late at night as well as the unrelenting brightness of a summer day, while Brandon Wolcott’s sound design offers an array of forest sounds. Jessica Pabst has created believable and appropriate costumes for each of the characters that easily reveal little aspects of their personalities.

Ting has elected to conduct scene changes under the glaring light of the single fluorescent fixture in the lodge while the rest of the stage is darkened, sort of reminding the audience to pay attention, what you are seeing here may be somewhat unusual to you—a distancing effect—yet is very relevant and accessible at the same time. He steps aside from his generally realistic approach to create a brief disturbing scene filled with Richard’s glaring red lights, mimicking a forest fire miles away and a shocking spectre that snares our curiosity for the subsequent scene. It’s not an off-putting choice, but it does its trick of renewing the audience’s attention and bringing us back into some of the issues at the heart of the play.

It’s rewarding to see the Williamstown Theatre Festival introduce this exciting young playwright to its audience. Hunter’s plays have been unexpected yet easily accessible, yet seldom do they telegraph their ultimate destination. As a result, they produce a sort of thrill in jaded playgoers who can enjoy the gentle surprises and surprising warmth contained in this young man’s work.

“A Great Wilderness” plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 20. For information and tickets, contact the Williamstown Box Office at 413.597.3400 or visit the theater’s website at www.wtfestival.org.

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