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BWW REVIEW: Peace Eludes THOREAU in Return to Walden at BTG

Written by David Adkins from the words of Henry David Thoreau; directed by Eric Hill; scenic design, Michael J. Riha; costume design, David Murin; lighting design, Matthew E. Adelson; sound design, J. Hegenbuckle; stage manager, Peter Durgin

Starring David Adkins as Henry David Thoreau

Tickets and Performances:

Now through July 11, Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge, Mass.; tickets are $50 and are available online at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org or by calling the Box Office at 412-997-4444.

It's 1859. The abolitionist John Brown and his family have just been executed for mounting a slave rebellion at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. As a result, the United States is on the brink of civil war. Writer, philosopher and activist Henry David Thoreau is devastated by the news of Brown's hanging, so with a knapsack, walking stick and newspaper in hand he heads back to the woods for contemplation. But the renowned transcendentalist and author of Walden is having trouble finding peace on his return visit to the rustic cabin that was once his refuge at Walden Pond. His inner and outer worlds clash feverishly, turning the staunch pacifist to thoughts of violent revenge.

THOREAU or, Return to Walden, is a timely new play written by and starring long-time Berkshire Theatre Group alum David Adkins. Now in its world premiere at BTG's Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, THOREAU brings the author of the essay "Civil Disobedience" vividly to life, melding Thoreau's own writings with Adkins' suppositions to transform the noted abolitionist into an eerily relevant messiah for our times.

One only need contemplate our own responses to the racism that is still so sadly prevalent today to understand the torment in Thoreau's soul when the agonizing headlines of current events invade the stillness he seeks in order to be whole. Adkins' writing and performance lay bare Thoreau's anguish, pitting his philosophical ideals against his country's inescapable brutality, an irreconcilable difference that makes him question the very purpose of his existence.

What Thoreau couldn't possibly know at the time was that his writings would one day inspire two of the greatest champions of civil rights and peaceful demonstration the world has ever known: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas (Mahatma) Ghandi. It is to Adkins' great credit that he doesn't let that later reality soften his play or performance. The battle that Thoreau has with his inner demons during his restless return to Walden is fitful and dramatic. His THOREAU is eloquent and spiritual, yes, but also thorny, melancholy, and eccentric.

Adkins is thoroughly captivating as the man more comfortable basking in the beauty of a sunrise than conforming to the political and societal conventions that inhibit true self-actualization. For 90 uninterrupted minutes he commands his woodsy outpost with the innocent wonder of a naturalist drinking in the aura of every insect, pine needle, water droplet and bird song. His most cherished possessions are a sweet-sounding hand-crafted bamboo flute and a delicate water lily which he gently cradles in a beautiful hand-carved wooden box.

But then there's that pesky newspaper story he has both literally and figuratively brought with him into the woods, the one that keeps drawing him out of his reverie and incites him to use one of the nearby stumps as a bully pulpit. As he wrestles with his conflicting emotions, he rails woefully, "I do not wish to kill or be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable! My thoughts are murder to the State, and I involuntarily go plotting against her.

"Walden?" he continues. "I dwelt in an illusion...We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them. Who can be serene in a country without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. I dwelt in an illusion."

As Adkins speaks these words for Thoreau, it's as if he's echoing the despair of countless generations. His anguish silences the birds and ignites a thunderstorm that seems to approach from a distant century. The rain is somehow soothing, though, refocusing Thoreau on the healing powers of nature. As he packs his knapsack and breaks camp for home, he is oddly renewed and once again at peace.

Adkins and director Eric Hill pace this one-man oratory to allow the audience to see and feel things precisely when Thoreau does. The play's words, elegant and poetic, paint vivid pictures and offer sudden revelatory surprises.

Michael J. Riha's ethereal set, though roughhewn and simple, evokes the ghosts of Thoreau's gentler past. Pages from his books and essays are plastered around the theater's walls, leading from the lobby into the playing space and surrounding the audience from floor to ceiling. The cabin in which Thoreau spent two contemplative years is now just a shell center stage, but it triggers fond memories and prompts him to reconstruct every detail of his safe haven, if only in his mind. A canopy of stars is now the roof under which he sleeps, and numerous tree stumps suggest the recent unrestricted lumbering activity that Thoreau abhors.

THOREAU is a powerful, thought-provoking new play that questions what it will take to overcome the brutality and injustices in the world. Just as the title character of 150 years ago wonders if bloodshed, not civil disobedience, is the only answer against the "peculiar institution" of slavery, the audience leaves wondering if revolution, not peaceful protest, is the answer to the oppression and racism of our times.

Ultimately THOREAU finds optimism in the simple beauty of a water lily. "Confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower!" he opines. If only mankind's actions could smell as sweet.

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL J. RIHA: David Adkins as Henry David Thoreau


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