BWW Reviews: Quotidan Theatre's WALK IN THE WOODS Shines, March 15-April 14, 2013
The theatre sage Marvin Carlson once famously argued that when we go to see a play, the stage is haunted; our experience of the live performance is colored by the memory of the actors' past performances, as well as past productions of the play. It's a fascinating theory, and in some ways it makes sense-especially when we go to see classic shows, we are almost always, somehow, comparing our new experience with the old ones.
But we still go to see a new production, even if we know the play by heart and have fond memories of our favorite actors in these roles. Why do we bother? Because theatre is about renewal, about celebrating the present, and as great as the past may be in theory, we return to have our faith in the stage renewed, our faith in the present, and we're even willing to risk a new take on a classic play we thought we knew. There's always the chance that with the right cast, those ghosts can be wiped away altogether.
Lee Blessing's Cold-War drama "A Walk in the Woods" is a case-in-point: based on a true story of failed negotiations on a Nuclear arms treaty in the Reagan 80's, and Paul Nitze's real-life encounters with Soviet negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky, the play for me will always be associated with the Broadway production-with Sam Waterston as the American and my theatrical hero Robert Prosky, a longtime company member at Arena Stage, in the role of his Russian counterpart.
Under the brisk direction of Gillian Drake, this two-hander proves to be every bit as relevant as it was 4when it was first staged thirty years ago. The Quotidean production lives and breathes precisely because it doesn't bother to pay homage to the original take on Blessing's tightly-wound dialogue. The world remains a dangerous place, after all, and as events in Asia and the Middle East prove there are still plenty of tables where negotiators, go through the motions and, regardless of their good intentions, fail (or refuse) to come to any worthwhile agreement. Futility was not just a Cold-War phenomenon, it is the ultimate ghost that haunts this production. As the hope and optimism of Blessing's opening scenes give way to frustration and despair, we realize that the fundamentals he unearthed decades ago remain all too true.
Anchoring this production is a brilliant, award-worthy performance by Brit Herring as John Honeyman, the bright and energetic American who has just arrived in Geneva to negotiate what he firmly believes is a history-making nuclear arms agreement. Draft treaty in hand and immaculately outfitted right down to his horn-rim glasses and bow-tie (a stroke of genius, that), Herring's prim exactitude is pitch-perfect, and his decline and fall into frustration and despair the highlight of the show.
As the play opens, Honeyman is lured into the Geneva woods by his Soviet counterpart Andrey Botvinnik, a career diplomat, during a long break in the negotiations. Botvinnik is the sober, easy-going counterpoint to Honeyman's insufferable optimism, and Honeyman is bewildered by Botvinnik's simple request to "Be frivolous with me." Botvinnik, who knows all too well how these negotiations usually end, does his best to teach Honeyman the virtues of patience and humility. As the months drag on it becomes clear that neither side can possibly come to an agreement; this leaves Honeyman completely at a loss, and it remains for Botvinnik to console his colleague, and leave him with some sage parting advice.
As Botvinnik, Quotidean veteran Steve LaRocque demonstrates the virtue of playing Russian characters discreetly. Years of taking on various roles in Chekhov's classic dramas (a Quotidean specialty) have helped to ground Larocque's stage work, and he is at his most effective when he allows his character to discover the wonders of the natural world around him-bird-watching, collecting pine cones, etc. His brief but pointed history lesson, where American idealism is contrasted with the harsh reality of Russia's past, is one of the highlights of this production.
Given the simple nature of the script, it would be completely understandable if Quotidean had simply given us a bench, a spotlight, and let the occasional bird call help set the scene. Fortunately, thanks to Samina Vieth's lovely design, we are treated to a sensitively-painted backdrop and beech saplings to ground us. In addition to some fine acting, audiences will be treated to a production in which nature, the woods, is given its due.
"A Walk in the Woods" plays March 15-April 14 at The Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, Maryland. For tickets, phone 1-800-838-3006, or go to www.brownpapertickets.com
Photo Credit: St. Johnn Blondell