The eagle and the bear, Front and Center
Rival diplomats seek common ground in Hubbard Hall's 'A Walk in the Woods'
CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — The youthful souls immersed in daily memes and friction inherent in the current American political climate often claim that there's been nothing like it, and perhaps domestically, they could be right.
Those, however, old enough to have lived through the Cold War have heard this song before, played out globally on the stage of nuclear arms brinkmanship, with the United States and the former Soviet Union, the eagle and the bear, front and center.
This week it's all coming alive again on the stage at Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education in Lee Blessing's award-winning drama, "A Walk in the Woods," directed by Kirk Jackson. The play opens Friday in the Mainstage and runs only two weekends through Feb. 3.
Based on an event from the historic Geneva nuclear arms treaty talks of 1984, Blessing's play involves two negotiators: American John Honeyman (David Snider, also the executive and artistic director at Hubbard Hall) and Russian Andrey Botvinnik (Robert Zukerman, formerly director of the New York State Council of the Arts theater program).
The men, both caring and intelligent, take a series of walks in the woods over the course of a year and struggle with their insights and exchanges on the topic of global annihilation.
According to director Jackson, Honeyman and Botvinnik lean into the careful craft of diplomacy and try to save the world, even though "neither are empirically innocent." He added that the play continues to resonate current themes.
"The play just keeps becoming more and more relevant every day," Jackson said during a break from rehearsals. "For example, [President] Trump engaged North Korea in bogus talks about denuclearization, which put substantive efforts of the past, addressed in the play, in stark contrast. Trump and Kim Jong-Un basically had a brunch date photo op, with flags and signatures, and zero substance or consequence."
In contrast, Jackson continued, in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan and Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev actually tried to communicate with each other and attempted to engage efforts to denuclearize the planet.
"Interestingly, the sticking point was the Star Wars initiative that Reagan wouldn't let go of," Jackson explained. "[Today], Trump is actively revitalizing that same pipe-dream."
"A Walk in the Woods" played on Broadway in 1988 starring Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston, and since then has been produced worldwide. It was nominated for a Tony Award in 1988, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1987. It was revived Off-Broadway last year by The Barrow Group.
In an e-mail sent from Los Angeles, where he now lives full time, Blessing said that "A Walk in the Woods" will always be relevant since "once a weapon has been invented, it can never really be un-invented."
"Nuclear weapons will always be with us, sadly, and one pressure that makes the issue (and the play) continually relevant is the proliferation of nuclear powers," Blessing said. "I was struck when a friend of mine traveling in India recently sent me a photo of a Mumbai production of [the play] featuring Pakistani and Indian negotiators."
Blessing referred to the subject's presentation in his play as both uncomfortable and prescient, citing one scene in which Botvinnik and Honeyman contemplate leaving their jobs while openly wondering if their successors will "have a conscience."
"So many new ways for the world to end suddenly have been observed or developed by science since the 1980s," Blessing said. "We tend at times to grow complacent about the threat posed by nuclear weapons. But they're still there, and in many places growing alarmingly. I would say they remain the likeliest apocalypse we face."
Snider brought Blessing's play to Cambridge after being approached by Jackson, who had directed it last year at Franklin (N.Y.) Stage Company, also with Zukerman in the cast.
"Kirk was very interested in working on this play again and thought I would be right in the role of Honeyman," Snider said. "I read the play and it struck me very much how topical it is."
Snider added that for him, there are many moments of the play that "seem ripped from our current consciousness and concerns."
"They're the same questions we ask today," Snider said. "How can we communicate with another world power in a clear, constructive way? How much do trust and personal relationships play into diplomacy? How can we save this world from total annihilation through clear, compelling, and bold relationships and fierce conversations?"
Snider noted that the current climate change crisis came to mind as Honeyman at one point in the play asks "You want to discuss the life and death of this planet now and then?"
"This seems completely on point with how we think about our approach to the growing climate crisis," Snider said. "We think and talk about it only now and then, as we quickly creep to the point of no return."
Jackson agreed, and further observed that the human dimension remained an integral element of the play's message as the story is, ultimately, an exploration of human relationships.
"Its observation of human behavior is poignant and remarkably funny," Jackson said. "What does it mean to be a friend? Can trust exist without friendship? Can political adversaries become friends? Do they need to, in order to solve differences? And, once again, we are back to something so undeniably and urgently a part of our current reality."
Telly Halkias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @TellyHalkias
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