THEATER REVIEW: ‘A Great Wilderness’ at the Beck Center by Roy Berko

A Great Wilderness

Though Sun 4/9

The American Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, American Psychiatric Association and almost all professional mental health practitioners agree that homosexuality is not an illness. There is also almost universal agreement among psychological experts that reparative therapy does not work as there is no reason to repair that which is not broken.

Those who disagree with these views tend to do so on moral grounds. Their morality is generally based on religious beliefs coming from fundamentalist and Orthodox groups who use Biblical interpretations as the source of their convictions. These beliefs, after years of preaching about sin and punishment, have become the basis for many societal attitudes about sexual orientation among a great number of people.

MacArthur “genius” Fellow and award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter takes on the topics of sexual orientation and conversion therapy in his A Great Wilderness, now on stage in Beck Center’s Studio Theater.

Hunter’s plays frequently are set in a backdrop of the mountain ranges and towns of Idaho where he grew up, and often examine the limitations of humanity’s vision as well as the role that religion plays in people’s longing for relief from the uncertainty of life.

A Great Wilderness centers on Walt (Tim Tavcar), who has spent many years as the leader of a Christian retreat whose goal is “curing” gay teens of their homosexuality. We find him in the process of closing down the camp, reluctantly retiring to an adult living facility.

Much against his desire, Walt takes on a last client. Daniel (Christian John Thomas), the young son of a minister, arrives confused and scared. After a short talk with Walt, being assured that he will not be subjected to electroschock therapy, food deprivation or other devices used at other such facilities, Daniel leaves to go for a walk in the Idaho wilderness.

Several hours later, when Daniel doesn’t return, Abby (Lenne Snively), Walt’s ex-wife, and Tim (Bryan Byers), her present husband, who have come to “take over the camp,” go in search of the boy. They unsuccessfully comb the area. Janet (Kelly Strand), a park ranger, search parties and helicopters then try to find Daniel. Eunice (Heidi Harris), Daniel’s mother, arrives upset by his disappearance and indicates that the boy has no survival training or skills. The next day Janet returns from her search with a blood-stained jacket. A worst-case scenario ensues.

Later that day, in an unexpected plot twist, Daniel returns, with a new vision of who he is and what his path should be. As the boy talks, Walt, in reflecting on his own life, seems to come to an awareness that his “previously unwavering moral compass no longer points the way he thought it did.” Curtain!

Probably because of Daniel’s last speech, his “seeing the light scene,” Hunter was confronted in an interview with the reaction, “I can’t believe a gay person can write this.” Hunter responded, “I was in Idaho and around his age in 1999. He says at the end of the play that he feels he didn’t exist, and I remember feeling that way, being a gay kid in Idaho, not knowing if there’s a place for me in the universe. And I found the place where I found connection and meaning kind of unlikely.”

Beck’s production is outstanding. Director Scott Spence has paced the staging well and selected a strong cast. Tim Tavcar, Lenne Snively, Bryan Byers, Heidi Harris and Kelly Strand all develop well-textured roles.   Special huzzahs to young Christian John Thomas who is note-perfect as the confused Daniel.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: A Great Wilderness is a thought-provoking script that gets an excellent production. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself involved in a lengthy discussion regarding the meaning of the play’s conclusion and have lots of self-thoughts about the play and its implications.

A Great Wilderness runs at Beck Center for the Arts through Sun 4/9. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to beckcenter.org.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

 

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