Posted: February 4, 2014 in Uncategorized


Walking back to my car after having seen Seattle Rep’s latest production of “A Great Wilderness,” written by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Braden Abraham, I was left feeling perplexed and unsure about what I had just seen.

On one hand, it had some of the best acting I have seen in Seattle in a long time. The entire cast was solid, seasoned, and superb. I was equally impressed with how the script held my attention, and kept me wondering just exactly who these characters were.

But on the other hand, the charm of the script also made me apprehensive in terms of figuring out what, if any, was the message of the play, and it is on this last point, concerning message, where I am still a bit unsure and uneasy …

In short, “A Great Wilderness” takes place in a gay conversion camp for young boys up in the mountains of Idaho. After 30 years as a ‘conversionist counselor,’ Walt (brilliantly played by Michael Winters) is now ready to retire due his advancing age and to some early onset dementia issues that had apparently led to a recent accident that jeopardized his safety. (The nature of this accident remains unclear in the text).

As the play opens, he is receiving his last case, a 16 year old boy named Daniel, (played by Jack Taylor) who is the son of a pastor, and who was caught looking at gay porn on the Internet by his father. Daniel had been sent to many other camps prior to this one, and this was his mother’s last desperate attempt to save her son from his “sickness,” that apparently manifested itself very early on in his life. “He was always feminine,” she laments.

Ok, so cut to the chase, Daniel goes out for a walk around the camp and doesn’t come back, thus prompting a search and rescue effort. It is at this time we meet the other four characters of the play: Abby (played by Christine Estabrook), her second husband, Tim, (played by R. Hamilton Wright) who are co-founders of the camp, Eunice, Daniel’s mother (played by Mari Nelson), and Janet (played by Gretchen Krich), the park ranger.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this play: the issue of conversion therapy, the search for a lost boy, the questions of aging and dementia, and of course, the debate over the nature of homosexuality. And all the while, a forest fire is raging all around the area.

I believe that the greatest strength of the playwright is his ability to write very engaging, very realistic dialogue. Some of the scenes between the various couples, especially between Walt and Abby, who also used to be married to each other,  and the dialogue between Abby and Eunice were particularly well-written.

But my problem with the play is trifold: 1) we don’t ever get to know enough about the boy who went missing and understand what he feels and thinks; 2) there is also a bit of confusion concerning the stylistic nature of the piece (ie. does it want to be naturalist/realistic or does it want to be fantastical/surrealistic?); and most importantly, 3) what IS its message, or is does it even have one?

The ambiguity of the second and third “problems” listed above is where I have most concern. I was left wondering what exactly happened. Did that last scene really occur or was it the delusions of a man suffering from dementia? Did the whole place go up in flames or was that just setting and an attempt at dramatic flare? And most importantly, is this playwright giving credence to conversion therapy or is he demonstrating its futility? All remains uncomfortably unclear.

Now, to be fair, I am not one who has to have clarity and resolution in a play. Having a PhD in French literature, I am quite used to ambiguity and irresolution in a work of literature, film, or theatre; but so much of this particular play was so rooted in realism that the fantastical elements (if they were indeed that) seemed out of place or just confusing.

And quite honestly, the ending was very dissatisfying. I spent the whole time fully engaged in the characters, the plot, and the issues that the play was exploring, but I never felt I got an answer to anything, and THAT troubles me given what this play is about.

I was left wondering if Seattle Rep just put on a play that gives a certain amount of credibility to “conversionism” because these conversionist characters were awfully endearing in many ways.  And so, in this case, the ambiguity that I normally appreciate left me with a very unsettled feeling. So, I’m just not sure.

All of this aside, the direction was good, the technical aspects were well executed, and I would recommend seeing the show. It is interesting and perplexing, and would make for a very good post-show conversation with a friend just to try and sort it all out.

“A Great Wilderness” is now playing through February 16 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. For tickets and info, visit www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.

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