Seattle Rep’s world premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Great Wilderness” couldn’t be timelier as, just last week, lawmakers in Olympia began discussing legislation that may make Washington the third state to ban gay conversion therapy. California and New Jersey have already banned this controversial treatment, also known as ex-gay therapy, that aims to change individuals’ sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
Walt (Seattle actor Michael Winters) has, for many years, conducted a sort of ex-gay camp for teens in the wilds of Idaho, where he combines counseling with Christian prayer and healthy outdoor activity. Lately, Walt has been experiencing problems with his memory and will move, somewhat unwillingly, into an assisted-living facility. But before his move, he will counsel a final “patient,” the taciturn Daniel (Ballard High School senior Jack Taylor).
But when Daniel fails to return from a walk in the woods, Walt begins to question himself and the therapy that has been his life’s work. A forest fire not only makes Daniel’s safe return less likely but handily stands in as a metaphor for the immutability of natural forces, whether in a forest or within human nature.
Hunter paints a compassionate portrait of Walt as a kind and caring man, skillfully brought to life by Winters’ complex portrayal. Regardless of what side of the ex-gay issue they may stand, the audience likes Walt, so they share his pain as he questions the counseling methods to which he has devoted his life. Revelations about Walt’s own history add a personal dimension to his ambivalence.
Excellently demonstrating the harmful trickledown effect of ex-gay therapy to family members are Mari Nelson, as Daniel’s brittle, exhausted mother; and Christine Estabrook, as Walt’s ex-wife Abby, who barely masks her continued resentment of Walt under a brisk practicality.
Gretchen Krich brings a breath of fresh air as cheerful, competent forest ranger Janet, the only character outside of the circle of torment.
R. Hamilton Wright rounds out the cast as Abby’s almost-unbelievably earnest and supportive current husband.
“A Great Wilderness” was commissioned by the Rep and initially workshopped at the Rep’s New Play Festival. Rep associate artistic director Braden Abraham both directed and collaborated with Hunter on revising the play to its current form. Hunter has a talent for subtly revealing character, family dynamics and history through naturally flowing dialogue.
But Act I may be almost too naturalistic and would benefit from tightening and added dramatic tension. The second act more than makes up for the first in pacing.
Scott Bradley’s set of a cozy, if rundown, cabin in the woods features a working fireplace and twisting, cross-latticed walls soaring up to the heavens like a giant, broken double-helix.
Obadiah Eaves’ original music and sound contribute a nightmarish quality as if we are listening to the howling of Walt’s unconscious.
“A Great Wilderness” plays at Seattle Rep (155 Mercer St.) through Feb. 16. For ticket information, visit www.seattlerep.org.
To comment on this review, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.