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Chicago by John Olson

A Walk in the Woods
TimeLine Theatre

Walk in the Woods
David Parkes, Janet Ullrich Brooks
It's hard to picture that fear of the complete annihilation of the world from nuclear war could seem quaint today. The public today is probably more fearful of hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and nuclear reactors damaged from any of the above than of a complete nuclear holocaust. We've seen the effects of such natural disasters but we can only imagine the aftermath of a nuclear attack. So why revive A Walk in the Woods, a story of the relationship between a Soviet and an American arms negotiator during the Reagan era? The play was written not long after the events that inspired it—the talks to limit Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces between 1981 and 1984—and premiered on Broadway in 1988, just before Reagan left office. The 1991 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) resulted in the removal of 80 percent of nuclear arms then in existence, greatly reducing, though not eliminating, the threat of mass nuclear destruction.

Viewing A Walk in the Woodsnow, in such a different era, maybe allows different themes to come forward in greater relief. The larger theme of the play is not so much the need for an agreement that could save humanity (which they do achieve in this play anyway), but the futility of humanity and good intentions against political considerations. In fact, the negotiators do arrive at an agreement, but it is rejected by their governments because their leaders believe it would be political suicide to actually agree to reduce arms. The belief is that public opinion at home and around the world only demands the appearance of progress toward arms reduction—and is fearful of the risk of genuine reduction. In reducing this global conflict to just two characters (each representing one of the two superpowers of the era), two people who can be rational and human when they "walk in the woods" to escape the formal negotiation sessions, we're left with the frightening thought that the collective wisdom of our governments is inferior to those of the individual.

The two characters of A Walk in the Woods were written by playwright Lee Blessing as men, and the real-life negotiators on which they were based were men. In this TimeLine production, directed by Nick Bowling, the Soviet negotiator is now a woman. Though I'd never seen the play before and can't compare, the play works beautifully that way, and largely because of the masterful performance in it by Janet Ullrich Brooks as Anya. Her Anya is warm, maternal, funny and human—qualities perhaps more readily associated with women than men. There's also just a hint of entirely chaste sexual tension that makes their pairing all the more interesting. Brooks communicates most convincingly the weariness of her character—a woman who has been on the USSR's negotiation team for many years and understands too well the powerlessness of their roles. "Perhaps some decisions are too big to be made," she sighs when lamenting the failure of their leaders to act on the negotiators' proposals.

Blessing makes the Soviet character the more likable of the two. The American, John Honeyman, is initially stiff and formal—first resisting Anya's hope they will become friends and later denying their obvious friendship as a means of striking back at her. David Parkes, an actor with the mellifluous voice of a network newscaster, easily has the bearing of a Washington D.C. aristocrat, and he displays Honeyman's determination to be a good "soldier" for the Americans and his befuddlement at dealing with the unpredictable Anya, who, he notes in exasperation, "treats serious things lightly and light things seriously." Through the year in which the action of the play occurs, he gradually warms up to Anya. Sadly for Parkes, his character as written is the less interesting of the two. And perhaps in an effort to spice up the character, Parkes plays an emotional outburst by Honeyman late in the play with such gusto that the explosion seems insufficiently motivated.

The action is set among several cutout trees in the set by Brian Sidney Bembridge. The video projections designed by Mike Tutaj, each depicting the woods in the one of the four seasons in which the four scenes are set, help establish the setting and mood of each scene.

A Walk in the Woods is not a great play—it would need a stronger-written Honeyman and a more compelling arc to be a great play. But it's a thoughtful and very witty one, offering the chance to see a very fine performance by one of Chicago's very best actresses.

A Walk in the Woods will play at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through November 20, 2011. For tickets, visit the Theater Wit Box Office or call it at 773-975-8150, or visit TimeLinetheatre.com.


Photo: Lara Goetsch

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-- John Olson



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