History is Geography Over Time: A WALK IN THE WOODS at International City Theatre

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Tony Abatemarco and David Nevell. Photo by Tracey Roman. 

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Long Beach Post. 

We live life at the edge of history. Though we often spend our time pretending like this is not the case (surrounding ourselves with all sorts of distractions), every moment that we are alive, we teeter on the cusp of life and death, of the mundane and the exhilarating, of the world that was and the world that will be. The theater, with its unique brand of “shaped time,” is one of the few rituals we still partake in where we strive to be present in a shared communal moment. I was keenly aware of this correlation during my attendance of A Walk in the Woods. Please allow me a slight political detour. I promise I will tie it back together by the end.

At this very moment, our country is facing all sorts of possible futures. Reality television has blurred many American minds into thinking it has produced a proper presidential candidate. The Oligarchy that has successfully controlled our government and our biggest corporations are getting called out from within the system for the first time in my lifetime. Young people from all sorts of backgrounds are speaking up about issues that the last few generations have been pacified to silence over. Everywhere Americans are starting to realize that “history” can only be experienced first hand in order to be witnessed without a corporate, political or personal bias of some kind.

In Lee Blessing’s 1988 play A Walk in the Woods, two diplomats, one American and one Russian, meet for a series of nuclear peace talks in the woods of Genevan. Set at the peak of the Cold War, A Walk in the Woods offers insight into the efforts our world’s leaders make, or rather, gesture towards making, in relation to peace between world powers. With these two characters and Blessing’s smart and zippy script as our guides, we gain insight toward not just the nuclear state of our planet, but to the often helpless few who wish to actually try to make our world a safer and better place from within the system. 

In a handsomely staged, well-acted and slightly reserved revival at International City Theater in Long Beach, it is clear that Mr. Blessing’s play is aging well. Directed with an even-handed clarity by John Henry Davis, this production of A Walk in the Woods offers much to recommend in it. 

Though nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1987, A Walk in the Woods was dealt some mixed reviews during its initial run.  Some critics thought that the willful ambiguity of the politics discussed led to a rather slapdash attitude about very serious subjects. Others thought that the playfulness of its tone nearly threatened to derail the proceedings into the style of Neil Simon’s comedies from the 60s and 70s. While I can see these criticisms having a place in the era this play was set in, from today’s vantage point, these factors are both in the play’s favor. By emphasizing the big picture and by framing serious subject matter in a witty and humane manner, it allows contemporary audiences to insert themselves into the politics of the day, instead of alienating them with political minutia. 

Both of the actors in the ICT’s production are perfectly cast and offer exemplary performances.

David Nevell plays John Honeyman (the American) with a wide-eyed optimism and a nearly unwavering self-seriousness. Having never negotiated a situation as pressing as possible nuclear destruction, Honeyman’s nerves are as high as his hopes. His inability to take things lightly or make fun of himself are both amusing and infuriating, but as his dedication to his job and empathy towards human kind is revealed, he gets under your skin. Nevell’s performance balances empathy and anxiety to just the right degree, creating a three-dimensional character that we like more and more as we get to know him. 

Tony Abatemarco’s portrayal of Andrey Botvinnik (the Russian) on the other hand, is instantly likeable from the get-go. Botyinnik has had decades of experience as a diplomat. After years of serious conversations that rarely lead anywhere, he has adopted a childlike insistence on irreverence in order to stay sane. Jaded by a lifetime of work toward goals that nations rarely choose to make good on, Botyinnik is the total opposite of Honeyman. Yet, as Honeyman’s eagerness to make good wears on him, Botyinnik’s buried compassion for his work begins to show. Though he is the more instantly likeable of the two, the complacency he has toward his work has terrifying implications. Abatemarco nails his performance, accent and all, with comedic timing and a believable worldliness to boot. It is during his telling, frustrated monologue in the second scene of Act 1 that Abatemarco really brings his performance home though. It is exhilarating to watch. 

As is often the case with plays staged at the ICT, the production values are professional and a little bit sterile. John Henry Davis directs the production with a clear eye and helps his actors find all of their proper beats and moments. I can’t help but wish that he had excavated a bit more theatrical sensibility for this production, however. I believe that it would have been the key to turning his very good production of this play into a possibly great one. The stylized transitions between season changes were a breath of fresh air and I wish we could have seen some of this theatrical poetry somehow stretched throughout.  An unnecessary bit of fiddling with some plastic flowers during the play’s final scene should also have been avoided.  Spring is a season of hope and re-birth. We get it. Some more subtle symbolism would have been appreciated.

The set design by Christopher Scott Murillo is appropriately suggestive and minimal; with a curtain of ropes upstage suggesting trees, a ramp splitting the playing space and a tree stump. I wish the stump could have been suggestive as well as the trees if just for the sake of consistency, however, I wished for it even moreso given the fact that a heightened sense of theatricality is really the only thing I think this production needed to send it through the roof. 

I would like to think that caryn desai chose a socially and politically relevant work for this slot in the ICT’s season with the awareness that we were going into election season at the same time it would be on stage. Regardless of whether or not she had this in mind, it serves as a perfect fit for the company. It is an entertaining, thoughtful and relevant work of theater, the kind ICT usually excels at, and one I wish they spent more time taking on.

Today, the threat of nuclear war is far from the only threat our planet faces to its existence. Our nation has perpetuated a war-machine that continues to drain our tax money and our capable young people of the potential they have to rebuild our country, leading us towards a self-sustaining, responsible society instead of into perpetual wars.

Toward the end of Act 1, Botyinnik exclaims, “If mankind hated war there would be millions of us and only two soldiers.” The only way to fight this reality is through awareness, conversation and action.  Lee Blessing started his conversation in 1988. It is sadly one we still need to be having. 

As our California primary drawns ever nearer, we stand on the edge of history ourselves. Never before in my lifetime has the California vote mattered so much to the American people. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for (it should be obvious who I’m voting for by the tone of this review) but please, do your homework and vote responsibly. This may be one of our last chances to peacefully acknowledge conversations that America has tried desperately to repress for as long as it possibly can. I hope, as the characters of A Walk in the Woods so desperately hope, that the conversation will finally start to be heard. 

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