The relationship between the United States and Russia has been fodder for endless films, TV shows and books. From the 40-year cold war to the did-they-or-didn’t-they hacking scandals of today, the association has at times been combative, cordial, but always complicated.
Written in 1988 as the Cold War was approaching its final act, Lee Blessing’s Pulitzer- and Tony-nominated political comedy, “A Walk in the Woods,” feels as fresh and relevant today as it did at its premiere. Based on the 1982 U.S./Soviet negotiations in Switzerland, “A Walk in the Woods” examines the complex ideologies of two very different world powers, but the shared conquest for global domination.
The West End Players Guild (WEPG) brings its unique spin to this acclaimed piece in a way that’s engaging and fascinating, making the two-hour show fly by.
“A Walk in the Woods” follows the months-long arms race negotiations between Soviet diplomat and experienced negotiator Andrey Botvinnik and optimistic, new-to-the-game John Honeyman from Wausau, Wis. The two step away from the bargaining table and into the woods for a one-on-one conversation, away from the scrutiny of their fellow diplomats and the prying eyes of the international media, to seek a breakthrough on a nuclear deadlock.
From the start, the relationship is strained between the veteran and the newbie, the cynicist and the idealist, the Communist and the Capitalist. As Botvinnik, Tom Moore, in his WEPG premiere, truly captures the essence of a battle-worn negotiator. To those listening, he is on his game, sly in his approach, quick to the punch. But watching Moore, you feel the physical and emotional toll from years of engagement. While older than his counterpart, it’s not his age that has touched his gait and mannerisms, it’s the weight of the world sitting heavily on his shoulders.
Moore embodies Blessing’s rollercoaster ride of seriousness and humor seamlessly. The safety of the world’s population is in his hands – and his colleague’s – but he uses his time in the woods to discuss the American pop culture he lusts after. Moore’s delivery is on-point, delivering the laughs to de-arm the tension of the situation and leaving the audience wondering his true motives.
For Honeyman, played by Tim Naegelin, the friendly banter led by Botvinnik is confusing. For the straight-laced, down-to-business American, his approach is not only off-putting, but nerve-wracking. Is the veteran negotiator trying to be friendly – or is it a ploy, trying to throw the newbie off his game and give the upper hand to the Soviets?
Naegelin captures the awkwardness and formality of Honeyman well. He is a realist, knowing the impact war would have on the world, and an idealist, believing that with hard work and understanding, the two countries can develop a treaty that fairly accomplishes both of their goals. It’s in the second act that Naeglin truly shines. As he watches everything he works for begin to crumble and his belief system altered, he evolves from a controlled negotiator into a frustrated pawn of the two governments, lashing out with red-hot anger that can only be balanced by Moore’s calm and resolve.
Like Moore and Naegelin, the scene itself is a player in the story. Director Renee Sevier-Monsey takes the audience deep into the woods, allowing them to eavesdrop on the conversation through the trees. By skipping a traditional stage setting and placing the seats in the forest, complemented by the smell of mulch and green and the sounds of crickets in the background, “A Walk in the Woods” fully immerses theatre fans in the experience. Through it all, we’re left to wonder – is there compromise when it comes to peace around the world or is finding a middle ground an exercise in futility?
“A Walk in the Woods” runs now through Oct. 8 at the WEPG theatre, located at Union Avenue Christian Church at 733 Union Boulevard. Tickets are $25 for the general public; $20 for seniors and students. For more information, visit http://westendplayers.org.