5:20 PM CDT, August 23, 2011
These days, nuclear fears have been eclipsed by economic terrors. And, despite a brief recent rhetorical resurrection by Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Soviet Union is toast. And thus Lee Blessing's 1986 play "A Walk in the Woods," once a very timely two-character play about the early-'80s arms negotiations over intermediate-range nuclear forces, faces a brave, or maybe not so brave, new world order.
In Chicago, there is a new twist. For the season opener at TimeLine Theatre, director Nick Bowling has switched, with Blessing's blessing, the gender of the character of Andry (now Anya) Botvinnik, the Soviet negotiator whom Blessing loosely based on Yuli Kvitsinsky.
Actress Janet Ulrich Brooks, one of the most formidable weapons in the TimeLine arsenal, shares the stage with David Parkes, who plays John Honeyman, the American negotiator loosely based on Paul Nitze, who worked for Ronald Reagan. As far as I know, this is the first time Blessing has approved such a switch, although I've read of productions where Honeyman has been played by an actress, opposite a male Botvinnik.
You might reasonably argue that gender doesn't matter here, given both the fictional world and the real-world presence of women in these roles. But it naturally changes the dynamic of the proceedings, especially since Blessing was always fundamentally concerned with how global issues (such as the presence of weapons capable of the destruction of both superpowers) were resolved by individual personalities.
History surely proves this to be an accurate read: Massive historical change often has flowed from a suddenly warm relationship or a fit of personal pique. There are a variety of opinions as to the reasons for the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, but it's surely indisputable that personal relationships among the likes of Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher were instrumental.
Blessing was more interested in their emissaries but he was on to something prescient.
That said, Bowling's production never fully takes off as one hopes. Part of the problem, I think, is the simple matter that Brooks' character comes off as a much stronger personality than Parkes'. In other words, it feels like a mismatch.
That's not necessarily Parkes' fault; the wily Botvinnik is written to be more charismatic than Honeyman, a no-nonsense Midwesterner.
It may well have been an accurate reflection on reality. But when you have a two-person play, you have to feel that the boxers are in the same weight class. That's not the case here.
The other issue is that the production, although classy and stimulating, somehow can't sufficiently tap into the emotional undercurrent — that key theme as to how personal matters wreak havoc with the geopolitical. These two actors are both honest, skillful players, and their dance of negotiation is certainly entertaining. Brooks, in particular, finds all kinds of shading, and there is not a false or artificial note in Parkes' performance. But there is an abiding absence of gravitas, an insufficient sense that the future of humanity is at stake as these two very different individuals, maybe friends, maybe rivals, take their stroll among the trees.
Maybe we can't yet look back on the 1980s at sufficient remove. Perhaps this play has become dated. More likely, though, something in this very nuanced and understated script has yet to be mined.
Either way, the production seems to run afraid of the impact of the switch in gender. When one reaches lines with sexual or personal ambiguity, you're pulled out of the play wondering what the actors are going to do. Ideally, strong choices would be made in every case. Here, though, the sexual dynamic feels a bit like the elephant in the forest. Nobody wants to deal with it, lest the more delicate trees are trampled. Such is the downside of doing something that the playwright did not, in the first impulse, do himself.
These conceptual choices work in many cases. But when you've got nuclear weapons already on a 25-year-old table, perhaps that's already more than enough for a simple walk in the woods.
When: Through Nov. 20
Where: Theater Wit,
1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $34-$44 at 773-975-8150 or timelinetheatre.com
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