A Walk In The Woods
A park bench seems innocent enough until you get it on stage. What might casually be seen as an unsuspecting piece of furniture in its aural habitat takes on a whole new personality when it is placed in front of an audience. In Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, a bench is a silent witness to murder; it may as well be an accomplice. In Mark St. Germain’s Ears On A Beatle a park bench bears witness to meetings between FBI agents whose values slowly shift. And in Lee Blessing’s Walk In The Woods, a park bench takes center stage in the impressive space of the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre.
The bench in question is Swiss. It sits on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland in the mid-1980s. Scenic Designer R.H.Graham sculpts the ample space of the Cabot’s stage into a grand sylvan setting. The ground is very earthy and organic. The trees are stark vertical lines far in the background and there is a winding path leading off the stage on the left. It is here that two men meet, away from the conference, to hammer out a few agreements involving weapons that could wipe out most of the life on the face of the planet. Peter Reeves plays John Honeyman, an American. Robert Spencer plays the Soviet Andrey Botvinnik.
Relying entirely on two actors playing two characters for an entire story can strain any feature-length play. Thankfully, Reeves and Spencer develop a rapport within Graham’s script that is interesting enough to swiftly carry four scenes with relatively few tiresome stretches. At the beginning of the first scene, we are seeing two people who have just met and begun working with each other. They’ve been hired by opposing employers and both want to work out an agreement.
Honeyman is a young, lean and bureaucratic man who seems to want to meet success in negotiations for the sake of his own achievement as a professional negotiator. Botvinnik is an older gentleman who has been working away at brokering an arms agreement between the U.S. and the USSR for a number of years. He wants to get to know Honeyman as a human being. Much of the appeal of the play unfolds in the first scene as Botvinnik tries desperately to reach Henyman’s human side so that they can talk like normal human beings. Any appeal that the rest of the play holds resonates from that first scene.
Spencer’s charisma here is much the same as it was in the Milwaukee Rep’s production of Tuesdays With Morrie some time ago. Spencer has a gift for portraying wise older man with diligent ethics and complex personalities. Reeves plays the straight man with such ferocity here that his suspicion of Botvinnik is palpable. With Spencer’s precise execution of Honeyman’s smart professionalism, it’s easy to side with his suspicions. Maybe Botvinnik’s efforts to reach a more friendly level of rapport with him are actually an attempt to control him. As the conversations play out, it is often difficult to tell whether they’re being genuinely friendly or simply manipulative. Spencer and Reeves play the game of humanity and politics surprisingly well in an elegant script by Lee Blessing. VS
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of A Walk In The Woods runs now through April 29th at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets range in price and can be purchased by calling the Broadway Theatre Center Box Office at 414-291-7800 or online at www.chamber-theatre.com.