Monday, February 03, 2014

Review/Discussion: "A Great Wilderness" is a complicated, valiant effort

Braden Abraham and Samuel Hunter (Andry Laurence)

Playwright Samuel Hunter chooses uncomfortable characters or they choose him, as evidenced in his play, The Whale, about a morbidly obese man, and in the world premiere play, A Great Wilderness, now being presented at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Here, the uncomfortable character is an old man ending a career working as a gay-conversion therapist.

When we get invited to a play, we reviewer-types get press releases with blurbs written to entice audiences to come to the show, while encapsulating what it’s about. The Rep said this about this play:

Walt has devoted his life to counseling teenage boys out of their homosexuality at his remote Idaho wilderness camp. Pressured to accept one last client, his carefully constructed life begins to unravel with the arrival of Daniel. When Daniel disappears, Walt is forced to ask for help—both in finding the missing boy and reconciling his past with the present.

Sometimes, even when only reading the press releases once, and cursorily at that, their context can be very influential and not always in a very positive way. The phrase that resonated with me prior to seeing the play was “reconciling his past with the present.” In fact, after seeing the play, what was on the stage really had nothing to do with reconciling his past with the present.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hunter is demonstrably a brilliant, up-and-coming playwright and his challenging topics are gripping. In this play, he clearly desires to get inside of and “play around in” (no fun intended here) the mindsets of people he came into contact with as a boy in small-town Pacific Northwest who believe deeply in Scripture and have been taught that Scripture declares homosexuality a sin, and therefore, want to help anyone they know stop sinning, if at all possible. They have been told that homosexuality is a choice, that it is a “lifestyle,” that it is mutable. Therefore, they can influence someone and train him (usually him) out of it.

An industry developed, as we know, that worked to “cure” young boys of their sins of homosexual thoughts or actions, and psychology participated in the wrong-headed notion of mutability for many, many years. Often, this therapy was also given in a wilderness camp environment, a get-away from normal life in order to allow new ways of living to be cemented before returning.

Now, we are evolving, and we begin to understand that this is not a “choice” and not mutable. It is as biologically determinate as blue eyes or brown hair or left-handedness. And we know traits are dominant and recessive. Yet no one who is righthanded can change to being lefthanded without almost superhuman efforts after losing an arm, for instance.

We know that boys who went through this kind of conversion therapy were essentially told that they could not stay who they were, were sinners, and could be saved. We know that boys who went through this therapy sometimes committed suicide, probably because they couldn’t change and didn’t feel like there was any other choice left.

Hunter wanted to illustrate the issue with a man who he reveals in the play to have had homosexual feelings when younger, and by having dialogue that states that those who often feel drawn to be therapists in the field are probably those who struggled with the same feelings as the boys they take on as clients.

What we see on stage, however, does not nearly get to Walt, the older man, working to reconcile his past with his present. That would really be a longer play or a different play.

What is on the stage is more about the legacy of building something and letting it go when the builder is gone. Much of the dialogue focuses on Walt’s transitioning to an elder facility and his friends’ desire to sell the camp he built rather than continuing the services of conversion therapy he offered there.

If the couple who wants to sell had wanted to go in a completely new direction, that would have been a clearer topic. But as Hunter writes this version (who knows if he will consider a rewrite?), it turns out that the couple consists of his ex-wife and her second husband, a … wait for it … conversion therapist, though a townie one. At one point, she accuses Walt of never having loved her, the implication being that since he was homosexual, he was unable to give her the love she needed. Then why would she marry another conversion therapist, if conversion therapists are mostly all men who struggled or struggle with homosexual issues themselves? (Not to mention that it’s a terrible accusation to say homosexuals can’t love people they’ve committed to, unless it’s supposed to be a statement from a still bitter ex-spouse.)

Braden Abraham directs a wonderful cast of acting talents in this interesting subject, who flesh out these characters as fully as they can. Michael Winter is compassionate as Walt, who is ending his career and uncertain of his impact on his “boys.” Jack Taylor displays great instincts as Daniel, the boy at the center who is lost and afraid and gentle and suspicious. Christine Estabrook plays a bossy, but understandable ex-spouse, with R. Hamilton Wright as her caught-in-the-middle spouse with few options to know what to do. Gretchen Krich has a fairly easy role as a forest ranger who doesn’t need to involve herself in the controversy. Mari Nelson does a solid turn in an underdeveloped role as Daniel’s mother.

As a non-Christian who is hyper sensitive to Christian thought, one of the surprises for me was how little Scripture there actually was in the play. It feels like Hunter missed the boat in this regard: the whole reason these Christians feel they must root out the sin is because of how central Scripture is to their whole lives. Everything revolves around the Bible and everything comes back to the Bible. I feel like I have some insight here from personal experiences.

Even the mother, married to a man who shunned his son, yet was one of the pastors of a mega-church, apparently, rarely mentions anything Biblical. No one prays for the missing boy. No one prays, at least out loud, for him or herself and for guidance. There is a crisis and yet no prayers are said? No one holds hands? No one invokes God or Jesus, almost at all?

There is, perhaps, a very important exploration here. Boys continue, and girls continue, to commit suicide. The It Gets Better project and online musicals like TheHinterlands try to penetrate the vast middle of this country to get word to those small-town boys and girls who feel different and who are afraid of themselves and what they are told is their sin that they control.

While the production of A Great Wilderness begins to explore the issue, the best parts of that exploration are the scenes between Walt and Daniel. The rest of the characters get in the way, right now, and distract from what probably should be the heart of the experience, and the challenge to Walt should probably be right in front of him: Daniel. Staying put. Believing in himself. Showing Walt that Walt can love himself, too.

I welcome your comments.

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  1. Miryam, very thoughtful analysis of A Great Wilderness, but my take was different. We see in Walt the completion of a lifetime arc that takes him from a well-intentioned "converter" to his final epiphany, when he says in the last line of the play, which is a clear abandonment and disavowal of his life's work, "I could have been anything."

    John Keegan

  2. John, does that mean, in your opinion, that he "could have been anything" BUT FOR his struggle with homosexuality? We don't really experience him re-evaluating his life until then, when the playwright postulates that the whole play is about him re-evaluating his life. In essence, his evaluation begins at that point (the end of the play) then, doesn't it?


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