There is a great paradox gnawing at the soul of Samuel D. Hunter’s new drama, “A Great Wilderness.”
The play concerns a kind, caring man who has spent much of his life running a Christian forest retreat where troubled adolescents can feel “safe” — while he helps them root out the “sin” of homosexuality.
But how can denying your true nature ever make you safe?
It hasn’t worked for the unfulfilled counselor Walt, portrayed in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s premiere production of “A Great Wilderness” with a sorrowful, half-strangled dignity by the superb Michael Winters.
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It also seems unlikely Walt’s approach to “ex-gay” counseling has helped his final client, the wary teenager Daniel (a touchingly fragile Jack Taylor). Or has it?
Hunter, an Idaho-bred playwright of growing prominence, tunes into a high frequency of empathy for isolated social fringe-dwellers like the well-meaning but misguided Walt.
“A Great Wilderness” was commissioned and shepherded with care by Seattle Rep for its New Plays project, with nurturing from director Braden Abraham, the Rep’s associate artistic head.
The sensitivity of Hunter’s writing, his ability to explore what festers between the lines of casual conversation, and in one’s heart of hearts, is never in doubt here. Yet Walt’s late-life crisis of faith and purpose doesn’t grip and move you with the gravitational pull you’d hope for from a drama that poses such profound questions of faith, identity and morality.
Whether the fault lies in the understated script, the languid Act 1 pacing or the sometimes listless acting (particularly by the tentative Christine Estabrook, as Walt’s ex-wife Abby), the conflicts between Walt, those around him and his own conscience can seem too muted, diffuse.
On the compact Leo K Theatre stage, director Abraham and set designer Scott Bradley put the play in the Idaho backwoods, within a towering A-frame cabin, working fireplace and all. After tragically losing his own son, Isaac, Walt built this now-bedraggled abode as a retreat for counseling gay youths.
There are obvious biblical allusions at work here — to Isaac, the son the prophet Abraham was willing to sacrifice to God, and also in the chapellike structure of the cabin. But the impressively scaled and detailed architecture tends to dwarf the intimacy of Hunter’s dramatic canvas. (Obadiah Eaves’ potent sound design, skilled as it is, also seems out of scale with the play.)
On the other hand, writer and director avoid miring “The Great Wilderness” in melodrama or sentimentality. Walt is neither villain nor hero, and his troubled past and blurry future breed no easy lessons.
As he prepares to retire to what sounds (from a droning DVD infomercial) like a dismal assisted-living facility, Walt expects the hypercritical Abby and her current husband Tim (R. Hamilton Wright) to keep his ministry going.
But Abby wants to sell the property — thereby crushing what little is left of the quest that has sustained, and crippled, Walt for decades.
You can see, in his brief interactions with young Daniel, how Walt’s gentleness and warmth may endear him to teens shunted by disapproving parents from one makeover ministry to another to “pray the gay away.”
But when Daniel goes missing in the woods, and a forest fire lessens his prospects for survival, Walt is engulfed with self doubts about his mission and other life choices. His ambivalence is mirrored, sideways, in Daniel’s mother (excellent Mari Nelson) who wonders, with shocking but tender frankness, if her browbeaten child might be better off dead.
As night wears on, the only grounded, unconflicted adult on hand is Janet (Gretchen Krich), a jocular forest ranger whose final, offhand compliment to Walt is unintentionally devastating.
A man wrestling with inner demons is not inherently theatrical. But in the show’s more dynamic moments, Winter makes it so. Sweetly absent-minded and bumbling, his Walt also harbors a raw rage. And you can see the physical and emotional effort it takes (and price it exacts) to choke it back, after a lifetime of trying to conquer an “addiction” that is really part of his authentic self.
One craves more of the piercing intensity Winters pours into “A Great Wilderness.” Perhaps Hunter’s play will, in its own journey, find more of it.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org