Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Walk in Woods’ invigorating in Sturgeon Bay

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A news item from Thursday, opening day of “A Walk in the Woods” at Third Avenue Playhouse, told of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., that included interplay involving a couple of goliaths, the United States and China. In the play, representatives of the United States and the Soviet Union partake in a kind of verbal/mind chess game behind the scenes in Geneva, Switzerland, during the warming stages of the Cold War in the 1980s. Much about these scenarios – and the play – is high level and highly defined and distilled with acute refinement. If the dotted “i’s” and crossed “t’s” of diplomacy and cautious intellectual interaction are your cup of tea, this production of Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods” is inviting and savory.

The story is a fictionalization of a situation in the early 1980s.

Carrie Hitchcock and Alan Kopischke are perfect-o as the Soviet and U.S. negotiators, respectively. Robert Boles directs meticulously.

***

Creative: Playwright – Lee Blessing; director – Robert Boles; set and lighting design – James Valcq; production stage manager and sound design – Ryan Patrick Shaw; scenic painting – Jocelyn Barnes; master carpenter – Ed DiMaio

Cast: Irina Botvinnik – Carrie Hitchcock; John Honeyman – Alan Kopischke

Running time: One hour, 55 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. April 1-2, 7-9, 14-16; 2 p.m. April 3, 10, 17

Info: thirdavenueplayhouse.com

***

In language (including a Russian accent for Hitchcock), clothing, set/setting and coy and conscientious interplay between the characters, skips of beat are imperceptible. The poplar trees of the set may be too perfectly straight (nature does have tilts), but that may be purposeful.

To see and hear Hitchcock and Kopischke perform is to relish pros in top form. Blessing’s script is incisive; it adores words and their nuances and meanings, and Hitchcock and Kopischke maneuver and manipulate them audibly and visually in shaping their complex characters.

Kopischke’s John Honeywell is an idealist. He is serious minded and eager to get his counterpart to show even the most minute signs of agreement toward some progress in the determinedly stalemated conferences to decrease the nuclear arms held by the two nations. (The sides know they can take each other out – and the rest of the world with them – in a virtual blink. That same realization exists in the Nuclear Security Summit of today, so the play resonates).

Hitchcock’s Irina Botvinnik is a pragmatist. She knows the negotiations are a marathon – Honeywell is her latest chief competitor in a progression – and she has fun along the way. Irina Botvinnik has a sense of humor. She plays with words, tinkers with inflection and throws impish curves in the direction of the officious John Honeywell. At one point, she asks him to be frivolous, and that throws him off… again.

How do diplomats dress? Extremely well. You know that. And so it is with these negotiators in the high style and elite looks of their suits/dresses, shoes and accoutrements and the way they flow and handle themselves in these refinements. There are four looks – one each for the four scenes of the play that take place generally over the course of a year. The backdrop changes, too, as time progresses (with the characters’ clothing matching the changing seasons). In the summer scene, birds are heard chirping in the background. In winter, a projection shows tree limbs bare. In spring, the projection shows trees brim with leaves.

Beforehand, at intermission and during scene changes, recorded music befitting the aura and/or season is played – that of Aaron Copland representing the American side and Sergei Rachmaninov representing the Russian.

So much fits so well in this production. It is precise yet fluid theater that is to be admired. The experience strokes the intellect.

Personal flashback: Though Lee Blessing’s play is much more elaborate and fleshed out, I concocted a similar scenario in a humor column in the Green Bay Press-Gazette during the Vietnam Peace Talks in Paris in the 1960s. The negotiators were William Averill Harriman of the United States and Xuan Thuy of North Vietnam. From June 7, 1968, here is an excerpt of that column that was repeated on page 277 of my book, “Tales of a Newspaperman: Lombardi and Ice Bowl Through Time”:

“Good morning, Mr. Harriman. Stop the bombing.”

“Good morning, Mr. Thuy. And how are you? Honor the demilitarized zone.”

“Fine. Yourself? Quit being so obstinate.”

“Not so good. My French cook isn’t working and Vance (Cyrus Vance, an American delegate to the talks) made some lousy bacon and eggs for breakfast. Is your wife feeling any better? Halt the infiltration of troupes into South Vietnam.”

“She’s still ill. But this time it’s gout. The United States should cease its aggression against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.”

And so on. Lee Blessing’s characters don’t get into the personal side of their lives, but that same definition of philosophical differences as in the column is very much a part of their fabric.

THE VENUE: The 84-seat Studio Theatre is located in Third Avenue Playhouse in downtown Sturgeon Bay. The space is tucked into the corner off the main theater of the playhouse. Entry is along a long hallway off the playhouse’s lobby. Studio Theatre is a black-box theater; the walls and support beams are black. The focus becomes the stage, which is rectangular and has no curtain. With the closeness of the audience to the stage, the aura is the audience is part of what is transpiring in the play. The playhouse is in its 14th year as a live performance venue. It previously was a movie theater, the Donna.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV between 6 and 7:30 a.m. Sundays.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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