Regional Reviews: St. Louis
A Walk in the Woods
Also see Richard's review of Lizzie
But there is something familiar and warm and perhaps even god-like about Lee Blessing's 1988 play A Walk in the Woods, which is surprisingly light and witty (in act one, anyway): we're on top of the world, so to speak. We never actually see the towering Swiss Alps from this forest glen, yet the almighty power of both sides in these arms reduction talks seems to raise them up to Mount Olympus.
The West End Players Guild begins its 107th season with this two-hour play, staged "arena style," right there in our laps, under the direction of Renee Sevier-Monsey. Set designer Jacob Winslow has spread the floor of the theater with mulch and stumps, and branches overhead enfold the playing area, making a private spot in the woods. There, an older Soviet diplomat and a much younger American wrangle over Kremlinology and the 1980s "go-getter" attitude in this country, and each other's personality quirks, in their brief down times away from their weighty talks. It's a bit like The Odd Couple in act one, sobered by the ghost of a mushroom cloud. Based on actual events from the mid-1980s, "A Walk in the Woods" became synonymous with an informal and oblique kind of diplomacy that (we hoped) might mysteriously save us all.
This show lets us in on that mystery, even as it builds to an unexpectedly personal, end-of-the-world tension. Tom Moore plays Andrey Botvinnik, a fictional, owlish Soviet negotiator, reminding us visually of Alec Guinness (as George Smiley for the BBC), mysteriously obscured behind large eyeglasses. And Tim Naegelin plays John Honeyman, the younger American, stamped with an Ivy League sense of nobility, as the new leader of the diplomatic team from Washington. Both actors are excellent, and the nature of their characters, and the shadows they cast, do as great a battle as the world systems they represent.
Visually, it's all about these two men: one hungry for a diplomatic agreement, and the other playing for time, though we pick up a lot of forgotten recent history along the way. Andrey, for example, points out that every significant arms reduction agreement has seemed to lead to a bigger arms buildup. And the implicit mastery of the Soviet diplomat here (over a less experienced American) reminds us that back thenin the days before computers and modern electronicsWashington had the reputation for always being a bit naïve, and therefore at a disadvantage in state-craft and intelligence-gathering compared to the "old world" capitals.
But it's also "the world in small," and the subtle struggle for dominance, and even a lot of unexpected idealism (on both sides), about the need for a way out of this modern devil's bargain of nuclear armsand how we chafe against it all. A lot of things have changed since 1988, especially in just the last year, and we may be overdue for this lesson in trust and humanity.
Through October 8, 2017, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, just north of Delmar Blvd. For more information visit www.westendplayers.org.