I have been excited for this show for a very long time. A brand new play, commissioned and directed by one of my favorite artists in Seattle (Braden Abraham-*swoon*), World Premiering at our favorite theatre in town? Lacy and I could not have been happier. The script is daring, unapologetic and incredibly intimate. Samuel D. Hunter is an artist to watch out for. He brings humanity into unexpected places and shines a generous light onto some uncomfortable topics. This is the kind of theatre that we at Copious Love, live for. This is the kind of theatre that gets under your skin and stays there.
Walking into the Leo K. theatre, you begin to hear the sounds of birds chirping, insects buzzing, brush being rustled. Sitting down in the audience feels more like sitting down around a campfire in the woods, which is a testament to how set designer Scott Bradley, lighting designer LB Morse and sound designer Obadiah Eaves used the space to their advantage. Everything about the design of this play is isolated, cramped, and a little unsettling. You want to feel comfortable, the middle of the woods can be a very calming location especially for us here in the North West, but there is an edge that you cannot seem to shake. There is a tense calm before the storm.
The second that Walt, played expertly by Michael Winters, limped on stage my heart skipped a beat. He looks, sounds and was dressed (down to the fading carpenter pants), exactly like my grandfather. The dingy cabin he lives in (in the middle of nowhere), the way he was pouring over a dictionary, “Trying to find the words…” was astonishingly familiar. Because of the familiarity in his appearance and demeanor, which was likely the case with a lot of audience members, you immediately want to sympathize with him. You find yourself thinking, ‘If only he didn’t run a Conversion Therapy camp to talk young homosexual teenagers into being straight.” Because that’s what he does. Walt spent his life counseling teenagers out of their homosexuality at his cabin, in the middle of nowhere.
After Walt decides to retire and move into a retirement home, a hysterical mother persuades him to take on one last client, his carefully constructed life begins to take a turn for the worst.This is a man who needs one last case to solidify that his life’s work was worth it. He needs to hear and know this now, before he can no longer remember. That time might be coming sooner rather than later. In fact, as we see Walt in his most intimate moments, he himself is having doubts as to why he does, what he does. Could he have been something more? What if he had been that person that he was so long ago?
Walt’s partners and former camp counselors Abby and Tim, Christine Estabrook and R. Hamilton Wright, show up to help with Walt’s upcoming move and things get more complicated. Daniel goes missing and his mother shows up shortly after, demanding to know what Walt’s process of conversion is. We, as an audience, are left with questions. Are these people doing “good work”? Were the kids they “helped” “better off” when they left the camp? Can this, a Conversion Therapy camp, be considered a “safe” environment? How does one person gauge that for another human being?
We are guided through this storm of controversy by the shows calm and thoughtful direction. There are ebbs and flows of peace and chaos in exactly the right places. Just as you are aching for relief, it is presented in a realistic way, which is to say, it’s never how you would expect it. Abraham is a master at chaotic balance and achieving astounding intimacy in the most brief and tender moments. The little moments are sometimes what hold the most weight on the stage. I cried about four times and it will be awhile before I can look at a tomato without slightly tearing up. Needless to say, I have never wished to give Jerry Manning and Braden Abraham a hug more than I did when we were walking out of A Great Wilderness. You must see this show. The discussions that it will spark are incredibly important, I truly believe this is a show for everyone.
The dedication that the Seattle Rep has made to cultivating and producing New Works is incredibly exciting and of course you want to support new works, right? Yes! I am positive we will be talking about this show for decades to come, and you will want to say you saw the World Premiere in your own backyard. Come see this show, donate to the New Play Program if you can and visit the bar because, to top it all off, they have a Moscow Mule on the menu at all times. Could it get any better? I’m not sure.
by Chelsea Madsen