Can a play humanize gay conversion therapy?
Although there are six characters in Seattle Rep's “A Great Wilderness,” the play is fundamentally the story of one man, struggling to come to terms with himself.
The reclusive Walt has been practicing gay conversion therapy for 30 years. As he faces the end of his career and the prospect of moving to to an assisted living facility he looks back at his life with anguish and, ultimately regret.
When we first meet Walt (Michael Winters), he is ensconced in his rural Idaho cabin, almost completely shut off from the outside world except for the occasional gay teen sent his way by concerned parents. Soon, Daniel (Ballard High School student Jack Taylor) arrives scared and unsure about why he's been sent there.
“I want you to feel safe,” Walt assures him. Daniel doesn’t appear convinced.
Over the course of the next couple of hours, it becomes clear that Walt is suffering from his own multi-faceted internal crisis; at the core of which is a profound human tragedy.
Michael Winters in Seattle Repertory Theatre's A Great Wilderness, 2013. Photo: Alan Alabastro
It would be easy to demonize Walt. Instead, playwright Samuel D. Hunter shows us a sympathetic, caring human being and Winters gives an inspired performance. Even at his curmudgeonly worst, Winters’ Walt is a gentle soul, capable of deep affection and profoundly empathetic to the plight of the young men sent his way.
When Daniel is reluctant to talk about the gay porn his parents caught him watching, Walt pulls back on his questions. When Daniel admits he feels like a freak, Walt assures him he is lovable and decent.
Winters is supported by an impressive cast, led by Christine Estabrook as Walt’s long-suffering friend Abby. Strident on the surface, Estabrook gradually reveals a wounded woman unable to escape from her own psychic distress. Ballard High School student Jack Taylor is a thoroughly believable Daniel, scared and scarred when we first meet him, confident and at peace at play’s end.
Director Braden Abraham and the talented actors bring out the humanity in the other characters as well, including the sassy Ranger Janet (Gretchen Krich) and Walt’s devoted friend Tim (R. Hamilton Wright). Only Daniel’s mother Eunice is imperfectly drawn. Mari Nelson does her best, but Hunter’s script doesn’t begin to capture the anguish of a mother whose son has disappeared.
(l to r) scriptwriter Samuel Hunter and director Braden Abraham, 2013. Photo: Andry Laurence.
There are other script failings as well, despite Hunter’s elegant and poetic writing. For one thing, Daniel’s evolution isn’t entirely convincing. For another, it’s ultimately unclear what “A Great Wilderness” is “about. There’s no question that Hunter’s play offers a penetrating character study, but its subject is so weighty and fraught with political and moral implications that the ending (no spoiler here) seems anti-climatic and vague.
It is to playwright Hunter’s great credit that he avoids taking a political position about Walt’s gay conversion work. Instead, he focuses on the motivations that propel Walt’s efforts, and the cost those efforts take on him. Although “A Great Wilderness” would seem to be all about a huge contemporary issue, it is a very personal story and one you won’t soon forget.
If you go: “A Great Wilderness,” through Feb. 16 in the Leo K. Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer Street. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday - Sunday, 2 p.m. matinees most Saturdays and Sundays and a select Wednesday. Tickets $34-47, at the box office, at 206-443-2222 or online at www.seattlerep.org.