Thought Provoking and Unpredictable A Great Wilderness
Walt, the spiritual, kind-hearted leader of a decades old conversion therapy program for gay youth in a rural, woodsy area in Idaho, is facing his last hurrah, working with a teen named Daniel prior to being put out to pasture in a cookie-cutter retirement home. After barely starting to make headway after getting acquainted with Daniel, Walt allows the boy to go off on a walk, and Daniel disappears. Abby, Walt's ex-wife, and her husband Tim, affiliated with Walt's program, arrive for a planned visit and lend a hand in the early hours of the search. Eventually, Daniel's frustrated, guilt-ridden mother Eunice arrives and Forest Ranger Janet is brought in when a nearing forest fire fuels concerns for Daniel's well-being. Walt is frustrated that he can't remember the last thing Daniel said before going on his walk, and both he and Abby harbor painful memories about how the suicide of their own young gay son led them to starting up this now waning program which has resulted in more failures than success stories. Through a dark unsettling night with no word of Daniel, the gentle Walt confronts his own demons, and waits, as does the audience, for some sort of resolution.
Hunter's play gives us a chance to see that the leaders of conversion programs are as strong or as fallible as anyone else. There are no villains or heroes in his story, merely people doing the best they know how within a bad situation. Michael Winters is at his considerable best as Walt, saying as much with a glance as most actors would with a monologue, and inordinately touching as we see that mourning the disappearance of this boy parallels not only the loss of his own son, but reminds him of his own youthful struggles. Veteran stage and television actress Christine Estabrook doesn't shy away from her character's unlikable side, then letting us in to see the damaged goods beneath her brittle fašade. Mari Nelson as Daniel's mom Eunice injects some needed humor here and there, and makes us understand why she thinks it might be better if Daniel never comes back. R. Hamilton Wright is affable in the under-written role of Tim, and Gretchen Krich is earnest as Janet. Despite little stage time, young Jack Taylor is moving and credible as Daniel, and connects movingly with Winters' Walt in their scenes together.
In a brilliant utilization of the intimate Leo K. space at the Rep, scenic designer Scott Bradley's astoundingly realistic ramshackle A-frame cabin is breathtaking, with evocative lighting and video design (of a promo for the senior home Walt is bound for) by L.B. Morse, and an effectively nervy, purposely jarring sound and music design by Obadiah Eaves.
A Great Wilderness is not feel good theatre, but what it does make you feel is the excitement of going down a road rarely travelled, and I have thought about it more since I left the theatre than any play I have seen in recent memory.
A Great Wilderness runs through February 16 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer Street in Seattle Center. For ticket information and more go to www.seattlerep.org.