Community Theatre Review: Character Studies Bring Rich Realism to “A Great Wilderness” at Players Club of Swarthmore
Theater can serve a lot of different purposes. It can be a distraction. It can entertain. It can inform. It can make you think, or simply marvel at the dedication of the actors on the stage.
Somewhere between these last two lives The Players Club of Swarthmore’s production of A Great Wilderness, playing on the theater’s Raymond W. Smith Stage through November 18.
Written by Samuel D. Hunter, the play tells the story of Walt, a man of advanced years who has spent his life counseling young boys away from their homosexual tendencies at his remote cabin in Idaho. In his last weeks in the woods before retiring to an assisted living facility, Walt is asked to take on one last client, a boy named Daniel. When Daniel disappears, George is forced to ask for help in finding him and in coming to terms with the life he’s lived and what lies ahead for him.
There’s a great challenge in presenting Walt as a likeable and sympathetic, especially when “conversion camps” like his are becoming an artifact of a less enlightened past. But George Mulford delivers a powerful performance that walks the line beautifully. He lives so fully in Walt that, even when not speaking, the audience can see the many layers of his internal struggle. Daniel’s disappearance triggers a slow unraveling of Walt’s psyche, and Mulford deftly navigates the road as the cracks begin to form.
Mulford is far from the only bright spot in the production. Director Anthony SanFilippo cast and led a group that, to a person, lends a sense of depth and realism to their characters. Oliver Feaster brings an earnestness to Daniel, mixing teenage misanthropy with a burning desire to be understood. Lisa Eckley Cocchiarale and Tim Oskin carry and convey long back stories as Abby and Tim, Walt’s ex-wife and her new husband Tim, also a counselor, who care deeply for Walt but are frustrated by the loosening of Walt’s grip on reality. Kim Shimer shines as Daniel’s mother Eunice, who is struggling with his sexuality but also wants to protect him. Even Ruth Boate, who offer comic relief as wilderness ranger Janet, ground her character in reality.
“Second stage” or “black box” productions can often be seen as cheap and flimsy, but PCS pulled out all the stops here. Set designer Jim Carroll makes Walt’s cabin, portrayed on stage as a single room, feel expansive and lived in. Special notice should also be given to the sound design by Karen Cook; there are some moments in the show where sound plays an important role, and it is executed very well in this production.
A Great Wilderness is a deep, emotional, beautifully written play exploring themes of denial, trust, searching and acceptance that will live with you long after you leave your seat. It’s clear that this production put a great deal of care into conveying these themes with reverence to the source material. Combine all of that and what you have is an incredibly rewarding theatergoing experience that it’s impossible not to recommend.
The show concludes its run this week, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. More information is available at http://www.pcstheater.org.