Samuel D. Hunter, the playwright of A GREAT WILDERNESS now running at Falcon Theatre, has a knack for writing about spirituality and sexuality that is both respectful and thought-provoking. Similar to A BRIGHT NEW BOISE, this play tells the story of a devout man struggling with his spiritual identity in light of past tragedy and current crisis. A GREAT WILDERNESS is the story of “Walt,” an older man, who has dedicated his life to “conversion therapy,” or the practice of helping homosexuals turn straight. Walt is retiring, but he’s agreed to work with one more boy, “Daniel.” We also meet Walt’s friends, “Tim” (Kelly Hale) and “Abby” (Arlene Brock-Balczo) as well as Daniel’s mother (Holly Sauerbrunn) and a reassuring and overly positive park ranger (Cat Cook).
On first glance, this show seems like it’ll be about homosexuality and morality; that would be the conventional path. But instead Hunter focuses on something even more human. It’s a phase of life piece and while it’s not his best script, it’s definitely good enough. (I do wish playwrights would stop writing dialogue where actors talk on top of one another, though. It’s too easy to miss important details and this script has two instances of multiple conversations occurring simultaneously. It’s distracting and annoying.)
Falcon’s production is also “good enough.” This is not the best show that’s ever graced the Falcon stage. There are problems with some of acting. Age-inappropriate casting is a pet peeve of mine and I didn’t believe some of the relationships – or emotion – on stage. However, the fine work of Allen R. Middleton as “Walt” and his chemistry with Caleb Farley’s “Daniel” demands to be seen. Middleton is an actor people notice; his voice can be bombastic and his overall energy can take over the room. Here, though, he channels that energy into the character’s physicality while conveying the internal struggles Walt has throughout the play. Farley is believable as the confused, frightened teenager and the final scene between the two actors is as heartfelt a moment as I’ve seen at Falcon. I could watch their moments together again and again.
Director Clint Ibele, in his directorial debut, shows great promise. Scenes begin with lights down and actors cueing the stage manager – an interesting choice. Time and place are easily recognized. Tension builds, but not too fast. Transitions are quick and efficient. But the story is the focus, as it should be, with the themes solidly at the foundation of the production. I look forward to more from him.
A GREAT WILDERNESS will not be what most people expect; I think that’s a positive. I hope audiences do, too.
A GREAT WILDERNESS runs through May 19th at Falcon Theatre in Newport, KY. Tickets and more information can be found here.