Building a story around a man dedicated to gay conversion therapy is risky. The very mention of the topic can send LGBT rights supporters into a frenzy. Making said character the sympathetic character at the heart of the story? That’s almost unfathomably bold. But such is the case with Samuel D. Hunter’s A Great Wilderness, in its world premiere run at Seattle Rep. Hunter, a gay man himself, doesn’t take the easy path and simply decry the abhorred nature of such camps. A Great Wilderness operates on a more nuanced level as it examines and deconstructs an aging man burdened with past secrets that cut deep to the bone and never fully scab over.
Set in an isolated and mildly disheveled cabin in Idaho (expertly realized in the Leo K. Theatre by the scenic designer Scott Bradley), A Great Wilderness centers on Walt (Michael Winters), an old man who runs a summer Christian retreat/camp with the goal of turning young gay teen boys straight. But Walt is anything but the fire and brimstone fundamentalist that one often pictures running such establishments. His process is based entirely around talking with the boys and developing a safe environment. He's kind and soft spoken, and acts confused and incensed when people ask him if he uses shock therapy. It’s Walt’s last summer at his cabin before moving to a retirement home and letting his friends Tim (R. Hamilton Wright) and Abby (Christine Estabrook) take over.
The show opens with the arrival of the lone teen to show up this summer—Daniel (Jack Taylor). The boy is petrified at the prospect of spending time with Walt, as his parents sent him to the cabin with no real explanation and this isn’t his first conversion therapy experience. Walt makes things comfortable for Daniel, who begins to warm to Walt before going out for a walk in the woods. But Daniel doesn't return. Tension mounts as Tim and Abby arrive, learn of the missing boy, and begin their search for him. The problems are exasperated by Walt’s creeping dementia and his inability to recall what Daniel told him right before heading out for the walk. As time passes and things grow more desperate, Walt’s ranger friend Janet (Gretchen Krich) and Daniel’s mother, Eunice (Mari Nelson), become involved.
Hunter’s script slowly peels back layers of Walt’s character, and Winter makes each new surprising revelation carry an ever more burdensome weight. Through spats with Abby, Eunice, and Tim, Hunter sketches out the troublesome questions filling Walt’s decaying mind. No images ring with a haunting chill more than the scenes where Walt motionlessly watches the retirement community’s promotional DVD alone in the dark of the cabin. As he hobbles around with mounting frustration, there’s an overarching sadness about him; he’s unable to shake the dark moments of his past or the inevitable enternal black that lies before him.
A Great Wilderness burns slow, but the flame licks high and hot, scorching a harrowing path and leaving the characters’ psyches in its ashes.
A Great Wilderness
Thru Feb 16, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $40–$58