Beliefs Shaken, Faith Stirred in ‘A Great Wilderness’

A Great Wilderness

A Great Wilderness

Sunlight sluices through the chinks of a wooden A-frame cabin, full of shabby, hodgepodge furniture and cardboard moving boxes. It’s silent, save for some muted birdsong, but it’s not empty. Frozen in a tense hush are Walt and Daniel, an elderly counselor and his teenage charge. Walt is affable, welcoming; Daniel is nervous, suspicious and understandably so. His mother shipped him off to this cabin in the Idaho woods without much of an explanation. But having already been through a handful of conversion therapy programs, he’s got the general idea.

Walt isn’t faring much better. Daniel is the last young man he will counsel towards heterosexuality before retiring to the rest home his incipient dementia demands.

The quiet, puzzling peace that grows between these two after their rocky beginning is at the heart of A Great Wilderness, the world premiere play by Samuel D. Hunter that recently opened at Seattle Rep. Daniel, the son of the senior pastor at one of Idaho’s largest evangelical churches, has spent his young life searching for a way to fit into his world. Walt genuinely wants Daniel to feel safe. He’s kind and thoughtful—anathema to many liberals’ fire-and-brimstone image of a man who would spend his life in such an endeavor.

Hunter wrote him this way, of course, but actor Michael Winters brings Walt to stark, shattering life. For decades, this camp is how Walt has defined himself. He started it after losing his son Isaac and, we’re led to believe, in the midst of a lifetime spent repressing his own true nature. Now that he’s on the verge of losing this fulcrum of his faith, Walt is questioning everything he’s ever believed in. Has he done the good he set out to do? Is there even good in what he does?    

When Daniel (Jack Taylor) goes missing in the woods, threatened first by the elements and later a forest fire, Walt and his small circle are thrown into turmoil, compounding Walt’s emotional free fall. This time, his failure is manifest. His old friends and partners in therapy Abby (Christine Estabrook) and Tim (R. Hamilton Wright) have come to help him pack and sell the camp property and end up caught in the rescue effort. They’re joined by the grounding force of a forest ranger named Janet (Gretchen Krich) and later by Daniel’s mother Eunice (Mari Nelson).

Directed by Rep associate artistic director Braden Abraham, the loving attention to detail in this piece is extraordinary. There’s Scott Bradley’s hyper-realistic set—a working sink, a functional fireplace, a towering cabin that feels both airy and oppressive. At the start of several scenes, a lamp turns on in the cabin, a small pool of warm, yellow light that expands and floods the cabin as the scene begins—a small detail, but a beautiful one from lighting designer L.B. Morse. Obadiah Eaves’ sound design, while overwhelming at times, is equally meticulous.

This cast is one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen on a Seattle stage in ages, and Nelson, as a mother heartsick that her sensitive, green-thumbed son may really be better off dead, brought me to tears. “He lives with a man who can’t stand to admit that he’s his father. He hates himself. If that wasn’t enough of a motivation to change, then excuse me, but what the hell would you or anyone else have to say that would be?”

Hunter is part of a generation of American dramatists finding its voice by examining the way we connect with one another rather than the way we connect with ourselves. Here he’s created theatre rooted in questioning, uncomfortable discussion, raised consciousness and awareness of our collective humanity.

Despite the biblical allusions speckled throughout A Great Wilderness, no great revelation awaits us at the end of the play, no great drama (and at points, a bit too much dramatic slack) in the sit-and-wait reality of Daniel’s situation. If you’re looking for answers, or even moral certitude, look elsewhere. Rather, this play plants a small, sad seed of empathy. Walt wants badly to give these boys the peace he never found within himself. Whatever your belief system may be, Hunter challenges viewers to find a place of compassion, the best catalyst for meaningful change.

A Great Wilderness runs through Feb. 16 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.