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Review: A GREAT WILDERNESS: Bring Your Moral Compass

A Great Wilderness

Written by Samuel D. Hunter, Direction & Scenic Design by David J. Miller; Costume Design, Matthew Solomon; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, J Jumbelic; Stage Manager, George Page

CAST (in order of appearance): Peter Brown, Jake Orozco-Herman, Shelley Brown, Thomas Grenon, Christine Power, Kathy LaShay Berenson; Voiceover on television, Rick Park

Performances through May 21 at Zeitgeist Stage Company, Plaza Black Box Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or

Four years ago, Zeitgeist Stage Company produced the New England premiere of A Bright New Boise by Samuel D. Hunter. When Artistic Director David J. Miller learned of a new work by the playwright a couple of years later, he took the opportunity to see it staged at Williamstown Theatre Festival and meet with Hunter. Now, Miller is directing the Boston area premiere of A Great Wilderness, a title which refers to the play's Idaho wilderness camp setting, as well as the metaphysical realm of a man's mind.

It is late summer in a cabin in the woods where Walt (Peter Brown) is packing up his life to move to a retirement home. His heart is not in it, so he has accepted one more teenage boy to the retreat where boys have come for thirty years in an attempt to pray away the gay, as it were. Walt is a Christian with a gentle demeanor whose stock in trade is to listen to his young charges and help them to feel safe, to discover their best selves. No electric shock, no fire and brimstone, and no shaming at this camp. Daniel (Jake Orozco-Herman) arrives on the scene with very little info and enormous emotional baggage, but harboring a slight hope that this man might help him.

Before we get to know much about Daniel or watch a relationship develop between the two, the boy goes missing in the woods. When Abby (Shelley Brown), Walt's former wife and co-founder of the camp, and her husband Tim (Thomas Grenon) show up to help Walt close the place down, they are dismayed to learn that he still has a camper onsite, but more concerned that Daniel has not returned from a walk. Along with the local ranger Janet (Kathy LaShay Berenson), they start to casually search for him. The stakes rise considerably when Daniel's mother Eunice (Christine Power) bursts through the tattered screen door in full meltdown mode. Upping the ante and tension further, a forest fire breaks out.

Hunter adds fuel to the fire with each character's back story, but he diminishes the focus on what I expected would be the primary scope of the plot, the concept of conversion therapy and how Daniel experiences it. However, the latter's absence becomes the center of attention, leading us to wonder if or when he'll return, making this a very different play than anticipated. The importance of Walt's motivations cannot be denied and Brown does a good job of showing his increasing self-doubt. His interactions with Abby stake out a battleground where each of them strives to justify their rationale for living after a horrible tragedy. However, Tim's presence as Abby's supportive spouse is a red herring, and the time spent on Eunice's apprehensions and mea culpas might be better given over to showcasing Daniel's issues. That being said, Grenon and Power both give honest portrayals of underwhelming characters. Shelley Brown makes us feel sympathy for Abby, even though she can be difficult and tells it like it is, often to the chagrin of the others.

Orozco-Herman, a veteran of several Boston Children's Theatre productions, is making his debut with Zeitgeist Stage and captures many of the nuances of Daniel's role. He wears the shell of mistrust at the beginning before slightly letting down his guard and dabbing his toe into the water of engagement with Walt. His body language tends to be stiff, but that could be either a function of it being early in the run, a good representation of the boy's discomfort in an awkward situation, or both. In a scene where Daniel is showing off his tomato collection to Walt, Orozco-Herman is animated and genuine, and he and Brown share a nice connection.

Miller's scenic design for the cabin is appropriately dated, right down to the rotary phone on the wall and the World Book Encyclopedia on the shelf. Lighting designer Michael Clark Wonson and sound designer J Jumbelic collaborate to create a very effective sense of fire, both in the distance and in the fireplace. Costume designer Matthew Solomon dresses everyone casually, with a prevalence of t-shirts, jeans, and flannel shirts, and the ranger wears an evocative forest green uniform. In his direction, Miller builds the tension and guides the actors through the minefield of conflicts their characters face. However, the search for Daniel weighs too heavily on the plot, drawing attention away from the struggles of the individuals we are supposed to care about.

Photo credit: Richard Hall/Silverline Images (Christine Power, Shelley Brown, Thomas Grenon, Kathy LaShay Bernson, and Peter Brown)

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