Wednesday, June 12, 2019

“A Walk In The Woods” Still Resonates Thirty Something Years Later.


The shortest distance between two points is a “Walk In The Woods”. Call it fortuitous. In 1983 a Soviet diplomat and an American diplomat met in Geneva, Switzerland to try to work out an arms treaty satisfactory to all parties. Instead of sitting across a long formal table from one another, they strolled in the woods alone, where they tried to chisel out an agreement that would slow down or limit the proliferation of nuclear missiles aimed at one another.
Both countries have enough nuclear weapons to wipe everyone off the face of the earth. 

To paraphrase Tevye the milkman, when his fellow citizens of Anatevka wanted to get even with the Czar for causing Pogroms, they shouted ‘an eye for an eye’. To that end Tevye replied, “And we’ll all be blind and toothless”.

David Ellenstein and J. Todd Adams 
Playwright Lee Blessings notes the idea for the came from a real life incident he read about in an article in1982. At that time playwrights were urged to step out of the familiar family type plays and venture into something more provoking. So he did!

Pulitzer Prize winning “A Walk In The Woods” was produced at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1987 under the direction of then, artistic director Des McAnuff. Yours truly was privileged to have seen it twice then and still marvel at the currency of the topic over the years, where today we are still negotiating the same treaties, only now with the same and other adversaries and no end in sight for the number of missiles any one country might have. Imagine the implications?

This important play is now in an exceptionally well acted, well crafted and well directed production as staged by Richard Baird, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach through June 23rd.
Ellenstein and Adams
North Coast’s artistic director David Ellenstein is the Russian, Andrey Botvinnik and J. Todd Adams is John Honeyman, the American diplomat. For two hours on stage they do diplomacy, not behind closed doors, but in a wooded area in Geneva Switzerland. Blessing gives the gift; the cast and crew do the rest.

The talks take place over the course of one year. With the four seasons represented by changes in weather as in Matt Novotny’ lighting, Michael Roth’s original music, Elisa Benzoni costume changes and of course Marty Burnett’s serene set design with floor to ceiling birch trees and one lonely bench. Taken as a whole, they give a clear understanding that peace talks do no happen in a vacuum or overnight.   

Both men approach their diplomacy and bargaining powers according to personalities: The American Honeyman (J. Tod Adams) is uptight, no nonsense, no humor, actually no personality type.

Botvinnik (Ellenstein) the more experienced tries to soften his counterpart by putting a little humor into the meetings, (“They know I make jokes) and or changing the subject that absolutely gets Honeyman’s goat.
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Botvinnik’s personality and distractions are clear to seasoned deal makers by changing the subject to catch your opponent off guard or perhaps that’s just the nature of his personality. He talks about clothes styles, Italian shoes, their favorite music, Disneyland and finally suggesting that they become friends. This completely unnerves Honeyman.  

H: “Is it good do you think for arms negotiators to be friends?”
B: “Someone has to.”

Ellenstein stepped out of his usual title as Artistic Director to don his actor’s hat for this role. His first love was/is acting and following in his famous father’s footsteps became an actor, a teacher and now for the past 12 + years has been artistic director of North Coast Rep.
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This towering hulk of a man has his personality etched clearly in his face; the twinkle in his eyes, the way he is comfortable in his own body and his body language talks volume’s.  

Don't be misled by outside appearances though, just because you can read one's face doesn’t mean you can read one's mind. As the senior negotiator dealing with the American, he can come across as a softie, a father image, a favorite uncle, but deep down he is just a cynical as his counterpart.

B: “We don’t trust you.”
H: “You don’t trust us?”
B: “Do you trust us?”
B: “Even if there were checks on the checks on the checks, we wouldn’t trust them.”

Adams’ Honeyman has a hard time convincing Andrey that they can make a deal. Even with his stiff shield around him one can see his reluctance, but on several instances falls in line with Andrey’s games, by playing some of the silly small talk. Actually, he has no choice. We can also see him almost coming in to his own and breaking his stiff upper lip, thanks to Adams’ fine acting and Baird’s robust direction.

In the end, both believed that something was better than nothing and a deal was reached between the two alternating rivals. When the deal was proposed it was rejected by the powers that be…Moscow and Washington. 

Sitting on the one lonely bench in that wood or pacing in the woods that Marty Burnett constructed, and letting the light give rise to hope, hope shone through, and after a quiet moment, both exit the woods. Some thirty years later,  we are still negotiating.

What we do know is that two men took the road not taken and that made all the difference back then. A deal was reached and rejected through no fault of their own.

Credit director Richard Baird for his evenhandedness balancing humor and serious talk giving way to the enormous job in front of them and making it look like a Sunday walk in the woods.

By giving each actor just enough juice to present themselves as true to form negotiators based on all the records of that time in history, Blessings’ “Walk” should be a guide to all future negotiators: Get away from the table and walk and talk. Most folks are capable of doing that. Well…for the most part.

Was their time in the woods an exercise in futility? I think not. Whenever one can take time to know another, it’s time well spent. Does every friendship strike a slap on the back and go forward? Not really. But changing the dynamic, and accepting that change can be a good thing might even work.  What we need now is for some of the bad actors get out of the way of the real life negotiators and let them do their jobs.

A must see.

See you at the theatre.


Dates: Through June 23rd
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 858-4811055
Production Type: Drama
Where:  987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, CA 92075
Ticket Prices: Start at $49.00
Web: northcoastrep.org
Photo: Aaron Rumley

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