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A journey into the daunting forest of arms diplomacy

Submitted by on Sep 24, 2011 – 8:21 pm

Review: “A Walk in the Woods” by Lee Blessing; produced by TimeLine Theatre at Theatre Wit through Nov. 20

 By Lawrence B. Johnson

David Parkes and Janet Ulrich Brooks in "A Walk in the Woods" (Photo by Lara Goetsch)

With the survival of mankind hanging in the balance, the arms negotiators for two superpowers step out of the world spotlight for a quiet stroll in the woods, where they must confront their own humanity and the daunting reality of their task.

Lee Blessing’s eloquent, finely distilled play “A Walk in the Woods” (1988) puts a fictional face and a moralizing spin on historical events of the early 1980s, when the American diplomat Paul Nitze and his Russian counterpart Yuli Kvitsinsky met in Switzerland under international scrutiny in a quest to reduce the two countries’ combined arsenal of some 70,000 nuclear warheads.

TimeLine Theatre has opened its season with a provocative and witty look at “A Walk in the Woods,” one that puts a high polish on every facet of Blessing’s portrait of two earnest if devoutly mismatched characters – a well-tested Russian who has acquired patience and an appreciation of life’s profound beauty and a headstrong young American, new to the big game and doggedly serious.

What’s more, TimeLine director Nick Bowling adds the wrinkle of making the Russian negotiator a woman, Anya Botvinnik, brought to life with equal parts of vitality and panache by Janet Ulrich Brooks. Opposite her, in every sense, is David Parkes’ single-minded American, John Honeyman. Theirs is a charged and funny and affecting dialectic, as Brooks’ expansive veteran seeks a starting point of personal friendship and Parkes’ impetuous Yank declares that friendship could only be a distraction in such critical proceedings.

When her adversary insists on a formal working relationship, the Russian blithely replies: “Formality is simply anger with its hair combed.”

From the start, it is the worldly Russian who sways our interest, and Brooks reinforces that natural magnetism with a performance that is layered, veiled, charming, absolutely genuine and ultimately vulnerable. The Russian is older and, while not more sincere, decidedly wiser. Brooks shows us a woman of a certain age, her brilliance and physical fitness – at one point she tries to catch a rabbit as she used to do with great success as a girl – lending her a distinct sex appeal.

The director’s decision to make the Russian a woman is not without real consequences. Is she attracted to the younger man? Is he, also very bright, self-consciously shrinking from a liaison dangereuse? Or is the Russian just European? Perhaps the young man is steeling himself against a mother transference – hence his adamant refusal to accept the Russian woman’s friendship, lest he surrender his equality of place in their negotiations.

Parkes cuts a credible, appealing, even endearing figure as the proud and determined man entrusted by his government – the Reagan administration, though the president’s name never comes up — to strike a deal with this wily, famously difficult Russian and draw the world back from the brink of nuclear catastrophe. This American is as blustery and buttoned-up as he is committed to the sacred charge of essentially saving the world.

It’s the Russian’s idea to get away from the negotiating table, away from the press and the cameras, and breathe in the fresh woodland air. The American initially assumes she has special information for him. But no, she just wants them to stretch their legs, enjoy nature’s realm, become friends. And she has lessons to share with her young antagonist – and with the rest of us. Perspectives on national security are relative. There’s a key factor of pride in who gets credit for a weapons accord. It’s also possible no one’s in a great hurry to pull back from the brink.

Against the backdrop of designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s poetically stylized woods, the bucolic retreats continue through months that turn into changing seasons vividly depicted in upstage videos.  And two adversaries become something very like friends, even if one of them might not call it by that name. Détente, on the human level.

History didn’t provide the playwright with an especially dramatic ending, and indeed “A Walk in the Woods” ends not merely without resolution but without much of a denouement at all. There’s a moment near the final curtain when neither character speaks, and the thought occurs that it’s the playwright who doesn’t know what to say next. Yet Blessing’s ample and insightful commentary on the modern human comedy well rewards your finding a tree to hide behind, to eavesdrop on these moments in the woods.

TimeLine Theatre production at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. www.timelinetheatre.com. (773) 281-8463