Lee Blessing’s Cold War drama points to little having changed

Note: Bob and Wendy are two old acting buddies of mine, so this may be something other than the world’s most unbiased review (but they really are great). Seeing these two old friends and veteran performers in A Walk in the Woods reminded me of a production of A Few Good Men at Breckenridge’s Backstage Theatre in the mid-’90s where Wendy and Bob also went at it as Lt. Cmdr. Galloway and Col. Jessup. The stories are completely different, but the theme is similar: standing up to power makes for great theatre.

Fresh off an impressive showing at this year’s Henry Awards, Carbondale’s Thunder River Theatre Company kicks off its new season with a blast from the past: Lee Blessing’s 1987 depiction of nuclear arms negotiations between a Soviet and an American diplomat. It’s as relevant as ever in a world where no amount of nuclear arms negotiations has resulted in much diminution in the staggering number of warheads still kicking about. A Walk in the Woods is also a study in how getting to know one’s adversary on a personal level can change the dynamics of the conversation on a fundamental level.

It’s also, to a great extent, a story about bullshit. More about that in a moment.

As we open the play on a spare set consisting of a patch of dirt, a few stumps and a bench, grizzled Soviet diplomat Andrey Botvinnik (Bob Moore) is sizing up the Americans’ fresh replacement, Joan Honeyman (Wendy Tennis). In her crisp blue suit and hair in a tight bun, the uptight Honeyman is unsure why Botvinnik asked her to take a break from their negotiations around a conference table in Geneva for a walk in the woods. But suspicions of ulterior motives are clearly high on her list.

For Botvinnik, for whom Honeyman is another in a line of Americans he’s had to discuss these things with, it’s all part of what for him is an act. He knows in his heart that these talks will lead nowhere — or close to it — and he’s determined to have some interesting conversations and maybe make a friend along the way.

A Walk in the Woods

Bob Moore and Wendy Tennis in the Thunder River Theatre Company’s production of ‘A Walk in the Woods.’

In the round

Director Corey Simpson set the show in the round, which the TRTC’s flexible space makes pretty simple. It’s a good choice because there’s little opportunity for much movement in the show, and having to present to multiple sides gives the actors a few more things to do physically. But make no mistake: This is a word play, a non-stop exploration of character between two people who are ostensibly enemies but who find over time that they may not be so different after all.

Originally written for two men, Blessing modified the script slightly to open up the Honeyman role for a female actor. Simpson was fortunate to have on hand two ideal performers able to command the stage on their own with just their words.

With his baritone voice and easy gravitas, Moore (who’s played the role before) is a natural for Botvinnik. He can never fully hide the omnipresent twinkle in his eye, so even when he’s playing “hardass Botvinnik,” we know we can never really take him seriously. At the top of the show, however, Honeyman doesn’t know that, and it takes her some time to realize that when Botvinnik says he’d love to discuss something utterly frivolous, he’s not kidding.

Facing Moore on the tiny set, Tennis rises to the occasion to counter-balance the quirky Russian with a slowly thawing revelation of Honeyman’s own self. It’s a strong performance that helps establish her character as an equal to the strong-willed Russian.

As the play takes place over the course of a year, the seasons change and so does the outerwear, but the real change is in Honeyman’s gradual acquiescence to Botvinnik’s understanding of how these things go. At one point he sums up the process by saying something like: “The Americans give up a few missiles, we give up a few, we declare success and go back to what we were doing.”

Going offline

That the two of them are engaged in a futile mission is central to that theme of bullshit I alluded to earlier. They discuss how things will look to the press in relation to whether they enter or leave the woods at the same time. They share information about how their negotiations play back home with equal skepticism. And when Botvinnik reveals that he’s going to retire toward the end of the play, Honeyman is genuinely affected.

Because the walks in the woods helped, they did. If nothing else, they gave two players in the absurd drama of superpower negotiations the chance to hang onto their humanity in the administration of their duties.

This is, of course, a pre-internet play, but I couldn’t help but think of the “walk in the woods” as analogous to going offline. As Botvinnik suggests, sitting around a table with a bunch of other people, press gathered outside the door and the world watching, is not the most fruitful atmosphere for discussion. Swap out mobile devices for all that and it’s the same thing. Only by absenting themselves from that scrum and learning who they are as people can they have any hope of arriving at any semblance of an agreement.

And even if that agreement isn’t forthcoming, well, Botvinnik reasons, at least two people on opposite sides can come to their own understanding.

Dehumanizing opponents of any kind is an unfortunate tendency humans have, but many also appreciate the fact that finding moments face to face — as Botvinnik and Honeyman do — can go a long way toward bridging those divides.

A Walk in the Woods is a story about frustration, to be sure, but it’s also one of hope that so long as keep talking, all may not be lost. Thunder River’s production is a great start to their season and it’s a genuine treat to see Moore and Tennis on stage t