Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Nostalgia for the Cold War at George Street
The George Street Playhouse has devoted the first half of its 2003-04 season to a trilogy of provocative plays dealing with important aspects of America's role in international conflicts since the aftermath of World War II. The most successful of the three, A Walk in the Woods, is currently on view.
Originally presented at the O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut in 1986, Woods worked its way to Broadway in 1988 where it enjoyed a modest success, running in excess of four months and being nominated for both the 1987 Pulitzer and the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play.
This two-hander by Lee Blessing was inspired by informal conversations during strategic arms control talks in Geneva between a U.S. and Soviet negotiator which produced a formula for an agreement to mutually reduce missile deployment in Europe. This formula was first rejected by the Soviet Union and later by the U.S. The conversation between the diplomats came to be known as "a walk in the woods."
However, Blessing's A Walk in the Woods is a creative work of ideas and imagination. Whereas the American during these discussions was the senior diplomat, Blessing has chosen to make the Soviet negotiator, Andrey Botvinnik (Mark Hammer), the wise and wizened senior filled with the perspective, patience and grace which come from experience. The American, John Honeyman (David Adkins), is young, inexperienced, impatient, brash and unrealistic. Over the course of the year or so that the four scenes which comprise the play occur, his experiences and the tutelage of his Soviet counterpart help him to attain greater understanding and maturity.
Originally, the characters were referred to as a Soviet diplomat and an American negotiator. Blessing has stated that he created these personas for his protagonists as he knew his audience would be primarily Americans whom he wanted to overcome cold war stereotypes about Russians as he had himself. A goal nicely achieved here without making either character less than admirable.
To a significant extent, A Walk in the Woods is a period piece. The imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and its defeat in the cold war seem to have been beyond rational consideration. The police state that was the Soviet Union and its enslavement of the eastern European countries are, respectively, blithely dismissed as a matter of geography and totally ignored.
Given the urbanity of the Russian diplomat and Blessing's view that the cold war was a kind of game played between civilized superpowers, and the radical Islamic terrorism which confronts us today, the play could induce nostalgia for the cold war among those with short memories
However, the proliferation of nuclear weapons was by then well underway, and this increasingly dangerous issue is well addressed here. There are many ideas, both historic and ongoing, which engage the mind.
The George Street production is first rate in every respect. Veteran Mark Hammer is a total delight as Andrey. His wit and warmth embrace the audience. He is totally natural and at ease, while exuding a larger than life presence. As difficult as it may be to fathom, one largely ceases to be consciously aware that he is propelling himself about the stage in an electric wheelchair (both of his legs have been amputated as a result of injury and diabetes). Hammer's indomitability actually enhances his performance. His work is in and of itself more than enough reason not to miss this production.
David Adkins as John is a perfect match for Hammer. Adkins succeeds in shading his performance so as to display growth both between and within scenes without losing the person whom we met at the start. Adkins subtly conveys change while remaining within his original persona.
Director Ethan McSweeny deserves much credit for his ability to find the key to smoothly integrating two performances which are appropriately in disparate styles. McSweeny continually, and not too obtrusively, moves his actors about the stage to minimize the static quality which is inherent in the work.
The extended playing area features a large circular patch of earth (on which rests a slatted wooden park bench) extended to the rim of the first row of seats. There are paths leading to and from this patch of earth. Trees abound, as do falling and fallen leaves and an abstract and color-shifting mixture of panels and stage wall at the rear. This impressive set by Michael Vaughn lends a sense of size to the proceedings and brings the players close to the audience. My only reservation is that I was unable to discern whether the background color changes reflected shifts in season, time of day or mood, and would have preferred for the realistic look of the balance of the set to be extended to its background..
Lee Blessing's play is small, light and sometimes glib. It deals with very large and serious issues whose complexities at times elude its grasp. However, A Walk in the Woods provides more than enough intelligence, insight, keen wit and winning humanity to make for a rewarding evening in the theatre.
By producing three thought provoking, politically aware plays this fall, Saint has made it clear that he respects his audience and that the George Street Playhouse is a haven for serious playgoers in search of quality theatre.
A Walk in the Woods continues performances through December 14, 2003 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901, Box Office: 732-246-7717; online www.GSPonline.org
A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing; directed by Ethan McSweeny.
Cast: David Adkins (John Honeyman); Mark Hammer (Andrey Botvinnik)