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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Great Wilderness

"It's so obvious you did not choose this for yourself. This is who you are, and this is who God created you to be."— The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister, recalling what he told his son Tim before he violated church teachings and officiated at his son's same-sex wedding-- highlighted as the quotation of the day in The New York Times July 13, 2014 edition
A Great Wilderness

Stephen Amenta and Jeffrey DeMunn (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
I read the New York Times piece Reverend Frank Schaefer quoted above just before heading to Williamstown to see Samuel D. Hunter's new play A Great Wilderness. (See links to the NYT article and reviews of Hunter's plays at the end of this review). Both Hunter's fictional characters and the very real Schaeffer and his son Tim have faced the issue facing so many conservative American Christians (as well as ultra-orthodox Jews): How to reconcile one's own or a son's homosexuality with the church's anti-gay doctrine.

Same issues. But oh, what a difference. Reverend Shaefer has been the father that young men like Hunter's Daniel (Stephan Amental) need and deserve. Unlike Hunter's Walt (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Tim (Kevin Greer), Shaefer has also been the sort of religious leader to persuade others to accept today's more open-minded view of different life styles.

Obviously the path taken by Reverend Shaefer and his son has not been easy and continues to stir up controversy. However, the continuing conflicts buffeting conservative religious groups clearly show an awareness of existing realities.

Not so Walt, the pivotal character of A Great Wilderness. He seems never to have heard of the thousands of same-sex marriages that have become part of America's social landscape. If old age weren't forcing him to leave the cabin in the Iowa wilderness from which the play takes its title, he'd continue to practice his homespun method of helping homosexual teenagers to lead straight lives through fatherly kindness and prayer.

It's not that Walt doesn't know about the internet and smart phones. In fact, Daniel, who he's agreed to counsel as a sort of last hurrah before moving to an assisted living residence, has been sent to him after being caught by his father, a minister of an Evangelical church watching a gay internet website. Walt sees himself a kinder less punitive mentor to boys whose sexual leanings are anathema to their parents and church. But like the rigidly anti-gay pastors he too believes that straight life is the right choice, but unlike the punitive methods others use he is convinced that a safe place to talk about and pray can reverse nature's troubling instincts. And so as he's stuck to his beliefs, not doing too much follow-up on how many of his "boys" revert back to their true natures later in life, or thinking about his own unfulfilled might-have-beens.

In short, anyone wanting to write an inspirational play about the conundrum faced by religious conservatives between what they've been taught and unconditional love and acceptance, might well cast the Reverend Schaefer or someone like him as its hero. That's not to say that Walt is a villain. Instead, Walt is a decent, well-intentioned man.

Like Charlie in Hunter's The Whale, Walt is at a critical point in his life, in this case reluctantly preparing to leave the cottage in the wilderness where he's spent thirty years trying to make up for his own failure as the father of a gay son, (with the apt biblical name of Isaac) by giving gay boys a safe place to talk and pray their way out of their sexual inclinations. When Daniel disappears right after his arrival, all the certainties are challenged.

What we see is a man deep into denial, about his own youthful unresolved conflicts about the life he could have had, and now his anxieties about the early stages of dementia making his move to assisted living a necessity.

Walt is definitely the central character of this new play, especially given Jeffrey DeMunn's masterful, richly textured performance. It's his show, though one can't help wishing Stephen Amenta's nicely nuanced Daniel would have had a chance to make more than bookend appearances, which would also have given us a clearer picture of just what Walt has been doing to keep parents sending gay kids to his retreats.

That said, as in A Bright New Boise and The Whale, Hunter has created a group portrait of ordinary people dealing with the extraordinary problems life tosses their way: Walt’s ex-wife, Abby (Mia Dillon), arrives with Tim to whom she's now married, to help Walt pack up only to have the situation of the missing Daniel open old wounds. . .Daniel's mother Eunice (Mia Barron), who also turns up, is likely to be the character to most shock the audience. . . also occasionally on scene is Janet (Tasha Lawrence, who also appeared in the recent New York production of The Few) the most common sense and unconflicted character.

The sheer number of the conflicts that erupt risk excess. However, the playwright knows how to use all this to create a compelling, tense drama that keeps you from quibbling too much about the soft spots until after it's over.

The intermittent voice-overs from a DVD telecast advertising the life that awaits Walt in the retirement community serve to underscore the harsh realities of old age, though Director Eric Ting should have worked with Clare Karwowski to make her voice less muddled. A scene where the television overlaps with Eunice's telephone argument with her husband and a third interchange between the other characters is probably purposely muddled. Complaints about the dialogue being hard to hear passed on to me by neighbors who attended a performance on the first day, seem to have been addressed between then and the weekend when I was there, since neither I or my husband had a problem with the actors' voice projection.

The production values are fine, as is usual at both of WTF's stages, with Wilson Chin deserving an extra hand for his authentically detailed cabin. But the play itself, unlike Mr. Hunter's previous Idaho plays, has an oddly out of its "Now" time frame feeling. Its characters, even the superbly performed Walt, seem from a time and place too hard for sophisticated audiences s to care much about. Perhaps, with Mr. Hunter settled into his life as a successful playwright it's time for him to move on from Idaho and his experience as a bible school educated gay boy. Maybe that's going to happen with his already next scheduled play, Pocatello, at New York's Playwrights Horizon.

Links to review references
Hunter's The Few -- Rattlestick 2014
Hunter's The Whale at Atlantic Theater 2012
Hunter's A Bright New Boise, 2010
New York Times article about Reverend Frank Schaeffer

A Great Wilderness by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Eric Ting
Cast: Jeffrey DeMunn (Walt), Stephan Amenta (Daniel), Mia Dillon (Abby), Kevin Geer (Tim), Mia Barron (Eunice), Tasha Lawrence (Janet)
Scenic Design, Wilson Chin
Costumes, Jessica Pabst
Lighting, Matthew Richards
Sound, Brandon Wolcott
Stage Manager, Lindsey Turteltaub
Running Time: 1 hour and 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Nikos Stage, Williamstown Theatre Festival
July 9-20, 2014
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/13 matinee
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