Jeffrey DeMunn suffers indignities well and is always a compelling victim. He was ingested by alien jello in the remake of The Blob, given a bloody nose by a tentacled monster in The Mist, and disemboweled by a zombie in The Walking Dead. Now, he is up against an amorphous script that gives him an even less palpable antagonist or substantial conflict.
One leaves A Great Wilderness feeling sorry for DeMunn, who invests his energy and soul into a character who is interesting only because DeMunn endows him with integrity and humanity. The last time I saw him at WTF, he had rich material to mine in Arthur Miller’s The Price. This time his prodigious talents are squandered on material that offers up only dross.
DeMunn plays Walt, a sweet and self-effacing leader of a Christian retreat set in the wilderness of Idaho. There, in a summer camp for gay teenage boys, Walt gently plies his gay conversion therapy to set them back on the path of the straight and narrow. The therapy is a somewhat freestyle mixture of prayer, scripture reading and earnest, nonthreatening discussion. Mercifully, we are not forced to endure the first two; unfortunately, there is not enough of the later to let us surmise who both Walt and his recent charge, Daniel, are. Instead, in some very clumsy and seemingly endless exposition, we are told who Walt is through the introduction of his ex-wife, Abby (Mia Dillon) and her new husband, Tim, who as played by Kevin Geer appears to be gay and attracted to Walt. It’s an audience tease that goes nowhere and only serves as a distraction.
Intended to heighten the stakes is the information that this is to be Walt’s last hurrah and that he will soon be entering an assisted-living residence, a DVD of which idiotically plays far too often on a television. The playwright is ironically juxtaposing gay conversion therapy and the therapy of the assisted-living facility, wherein the realities of residents, afflicted with dementia or Alzheimer’s, are honored and validated. However, the comparison offers no eureka moment in the play’s abrupt and unmoving conclusion.
When Daniel goes missing in the forest surrounding Walt’s camp (the symbolism of being lost is particularly specious), we are asked to feel tension for him and Walt, but as we have barely gotten to know Daniel (despite Stephen Amenta’s engaging presence), it is difficult to muster much empathy. His prolonged stage absence becomes a clumsy tool to string us along while the other characters reveal more of Walt. But unfortunately, Walt is best revealed in his too-brief exchanges with Daniel. Theirs is truest connection on stage, the only time we really begin to care.
The introduction of Daniel’s religious mother, who concludes her son may be better off dead than gay, asks Mia Barron to jump through some well-nigh impossible hoops, but that she does so with a modicum of believability is a testament to Barron’s resourcefulness in playing an underdeveloped and unsympathetic character. The introduction of a forest ranger, played for comedy by Tasha Lawrence, is an unwelcome diversion. And the introduction of a forest fire is laughably contrived—but to have it provide sort of a deus ex machina conversion is utterly crass.
The author, Samuel D. Hunter, seems to take pride in not engaging in religious debate or polemics. It’s a laudable intention, but given the lack of sparks on the stage, some fire might at least have enlivened matters. Tepid and lost in its own woods, the writing only begins to smolder in dialogue between DeMunn and the too-long-lost Amenta. The director, Eric Ting, at a loss to invigorate this flaccid material, throws in jarring light changes but fails to illuminate anything of consequence.
It’s up to DeMunn to do all the heavy lifting. He does a yeoman job, but finds little help in a script that hints at Walt being a repressed homosexual and then unbelievably has him questioning his life’s work as a result of the disappearance of a teenager whom he has known for only one hour (mere minutes for the audience).
How such plays find their way to places like the WTF, is a more perplexing question than any raised by this work.