Friday, February 16, 2018

A Walk in the Woods (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For the second time in one week, I saw a play dealing with the end of the world--in this case focusing on those whose jobs (one would think) are to prevent that happening.

Or is it?

Lee Blessings' A Walk in the Woods takes place in the 1980s, and consists of two arms negotiators tasked with finding a way for the two superpowers to reduce their nuclear arsenals.  With the power to wipe out all the nations on Earth simply waiting to be used, waiting for some accident or misunderstanding or some act of stupid malice, it should prove not too difficult.  Right?  After all, our own survival depends upon this.  Right?  Our own lives and the lives of everyone we love, hate, know, have heard of plus everybody else.

Yet it proved so very hard.  Why?

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
American Joan Honeyman (Nan McNamara), new to Switzerland where the negotiations continue, finds herself gently but firmly dragged for a walk into the local woods by her Russian counterpart Andrey Botvinnik (Phil Crowley).  He proves to be precisely as she had been warned--charming, cheerfully self-contradictory, with a thousand and one ways to say "No."  In particular she seems baffled (or frustrated) by his insistence they be friends, and when she rejects this idea, going along with it because they are friends.

Like many a work about an apocalypse, even a looming one, this play softens the horror with humor.  Good thing, too.  In many ways this becomes Honeyman's story of bitter disillusionment, of her holding on all the same.  The interplay of these opponents gradually grows into precisely what she said it must never be--a friendship.  As that happens, the issues behind and (horrifically) above those of the dangers involved emerge.  We should leave the theatre depressed.  Interestingly, we don't, but we hopefully avoid complacence.

Even as Botvinnik keeps trying to needle her into relaxing, to becoming his friend, she eventually coaxes him into revealing his own cynical view of their real purpose in these negotiations.  To seem busy, but achieve nothing.  The superpowers want to keep their atomics weapons.  Don't want to ever give them up.  They adore these things. Without them, he notes, the United States would just be a "bigger, richer Canada" and his nation "an enormous Poland."

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
If the world were really peace-loving, he points out, there would be millions of peace negotiators and only two soldiers. Not the other way 'round.

He clearly did not always feel this way. That it emerges, is the tragedy behind his own humor, a way of dealing with hopelessness.

During the course of the play, which consumes more than a year within the show itself (four scenes = four seasons), the two go back and forth, not in terms of specifics but of communication.  They grow and to some extent meet in the middle. It proves a bittersweet middle.  A melancholy one.  They have failed. Were always meant to fail.  Yet at least they are alive now.  Along with everybody else.  Who knows?  If they are lucky, maybe this will go on for centuries!

At that point what can one do but laugh? Laugh and enjoy this particular moment.  Then soldier on, hoping for something to happen.

Which seems like good advice for life, maybe.

A Walk in the Woods plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm as well as  Sundays at 2:30pm through March 18, 2018 (with special Saturday matinees at 2:30pm Feb.17 and 24) at the Crossley Theatre (on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church) 1760 North Gower, Hollywood CA 90028.

No comments: