Saturday, March 19, 2011
By Tom Wachunas
Sandwiched somewhere between the wry political cynicism, and the conversational frivolity in Lee Blessing’s powerful 1986 play, “A Walk in the Woods,” is a hefty slice of deadly-serious philosophizing about real trust and human authenticity. It’s a complicated, volatile chemistry, to be sure, and director Philip L. Robb has engaged it with exceptionally brilliant results in the current production of the play at the Kathleen Howland Theatre in downtown Canton.
The story, set in the 1980s, transpires over nearly a year in a mountaintop forest near Geneva, Switzerland. Here, on a bench surrounded by trees, Andrey Botvinnik, a career Soviet diplomat, meets with his younger American counterpart, John Honeyman, as they take breaks from their endless arms reduction talks. The Russian, a self-proclaimed realist, is jaded by too many years of fruitless gamesmanship and political ritual. Is it merely sarcasm when he proposes that peace talks won’t be productive unless they’re conducted at the bottom of a missile silo? He insists that these breaks be a time for intentionally frivolous, trivial conversation (he suggests talking about Country music and Mickey Mouse, among other things) to foster friendship. The incredulous (and distrustful) American, himself an admitted idealist, bristles at the thought of wasting time on superficial friendship in the face of impending Armageddon, and in turn insists on the formality of the urgent U.S. agenda to save the world. At one point Andrey dismisses such a stance with one of his many sardonic retorts, “Formality is simply anger with its hair combed.” Underlying this mutual intractability is an almost insouciant sense of Andrey viewing himself as the sincere and wise mentor of his less-experienced “student” negotiator. He seems to champion the paradoxical notion that only “meaningless conversation” can lead to meaningful relationships. But with each successive meeting in the forest, some deeper, more subtle motivations are revealed, and some facades become intriguingly less opaque.
So OK, the play might not have the topical urgency it did when it first appeared. Hindsight makes it seem all the more sentimental, maybe even absurd. After all, not long after its premiere, the Soviet Union as we once knew it collapsed, and planet earth has yet to become a lifeless ball of radioactive sludge. Then again, unless you’ve been holed up in a bomb shelter somewhere, these days it’s increasingly, painfully apparent that nuclear technology isn’t the only option we have for killing each other on an international scale. In today’s context of global political flux, the play still reads as a thoroughly alive and substantive commentary on our struggle with conflicts both private and public.
Here, that aliveness is an electrifying thing to behold, given riveting form by Rod Lang as Andrey, and David Sponhour as John. Presented with impeccable Russian accent, Lang’s portrait of the affable Soviet diplomat is as endearingly funny as it is earthy and sobering. Ever ready to deflect the American’s entrenchment in gravitas, he says at one point, “When two men are dying of cancer, what do they talk about? Cancer? No, it would be in bad taste.” And nowhere is his delivery more profound and rattling than when he reluctantly surrenders to the challenge to “get serious” and unleashes what amounts to a searing diatribe on Soviet and American behavior in the world, offering one of the play’s more profound observations, “History is geography over time.” It’s a tough role to counterpoint, but Sponhour holds his own very well indeed, delivering a similarly energetic and edgy picture of the stiff, priggish and proper American optimist. In a particularly animated moment late in the play, he’s been visibly diminished by both diplomatic failure and a run-in with a multi-lingual Swiss cop for littering. To an amused and sympathetic Andrey, he recounts the confrontation wherein he desperately flashed his I.D. (pleading, “I’m a diplomat, an American diplomat!”) before a crowd of mystified Swiss citizens. The moment, like many throughout the evening, is both convincingly poignant and utterly hilarious.
In the end, did they ever reach a diplomatic agreement of any consequence, or become real friends? Well, as a matter of fact they…nahh, you’ll just have to come and find out for yourself.
Photo: David Sponhour and Rod Lang (seated), in Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods” shows at 8:00p.m. March 19, 25, and 26 at the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located downstairs at Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Avenue N, downtown Canton. Tickets are $10.00, and $5.00 for seniors, students with school I.D. card, or anyone presenting a public library card. Call (330) 451 -0924 or log on to www.secondapril.org