Review: Williamstown Theatre Festival's 'A Great Wilderness'


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Redemption and forgiveness figure prominently in Samuel D. Hunter's "A Great Wilderness" at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage.

The setting is a cabin at a camp on the edge of a wilderness area in Idaho. As the play begins, Walt (an excellent Jeffrey Demunn) is trying to make comfortable an obviously uncomfortable, ill-at-ease teenager named Daniel (a touching and affecting Stephen Amenta).

In what amounts to atonement and redemption for a personal tragedy in his life, Walt has spent the last 30 years bringing gay teenage boys to this camp, where he lives and where he and his partners, a married couple, Tim and Abby, have developed a gay conversion therapy program, although none of them is a trained counselor.

Daniel, it turns out, is the last of the boys. When Daniel's week with Walt is over, Walt will move into an assisted living residence while Tim and Abbey, so he believes, will take over the camp.

"It's all about you; you getting back to the person you really want to be," Walt says reassuringly to the apprehensive Daniel who, at his mother's arranging, has been whisked away in a van to the camp without much, if any, explanation.

"I just want to make you feel safe."

But before Walt can truly get started, Daniel goes for a walk in the woods and disappears, triggering a response from Tim and Abby (Kevin Geer and Mia Dillon), who have come to help Walt pack his personal belongings and close up the camp before his move to an assisted living facility.

Walt's initial response to Daniel's disappearance is to urge caution. He believes Daniel will return on his own. But as the late afternoon hours stretch into evening and deep into the night without any sign of the youth, caution gives way to common sense. Daniel's mother, Eunice (Mia Barron), whose husband, the founder of a Christian church in Idaho, cannot stomach his son's "femininity," is notified and a pragmatic, professional park ranger named Janet (Tasha Lawrence) is called in.

Walt's, and particularly Tim's, devotion to gay conversion therapy may shape who they are but the Biblically connoted, resonantly titled "A Great Wilderness" is not about a series of gay therapy sessions, although the scenes between Demunn's Walt and Amenta's Daniel are among the play's most compelling. Hunter has created an intensely human drama about a group of people who are shaped by their beliefs without being defined by them.

As the high-functioning Walt, who is showing early signs of dementia, Demunn delivers a moving, finely-tuned portrayal of a decent, honest, compassionate man who, at the height of one crisis, is drawn into a personal crisis of faith and self-confidence.

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You sense in Amenta's Daniel the fragility of a trusting youth who is bewildered, afraid, made timid and cautious by a young life marked by rejection and disgust from others, including his own father.

In the end, the uniformly well-acted "A Great Wilderness" is about forgiveness and closure and what happens when neither is in ample supply.

A GREAT WILDERNESS by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Eric Ting; scenic design, Wilson Chin; costume design, Jessica Pabst; lighting design, Matthew Richards; sound design, Brandon Walcott. Through July 20. 7:30 Wed., Thu.; 8 Fri., Sat. Mats.: 2 Thu., Sun., 3:30 Sat. Williamstiwn Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown. Tickets: $65. (413) 597-3400; 1 hour 44 minutes

Walt Jeffrey Demunn

Daniel Stephan Amenta

Abby Mia Dillon

Tim Kevin Geer

Eunice Mia Barron

Janet Tasha Lawrence

Television voiceover

Claire Karwowski


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