Theater review: A trip to the ‘Wilderness’ offers mixed results in terms of emotional impact, but a powerful message still resonates
There can be a lot of power in what some people call “verbatim theatre,” a form of documentary playwriting in which the writer interviews people about a particular event or topic and then scripts the answers for actors to recite and interpret. Such influential plays as “The Laramie Project” and “The Exonerated” come to mind. The power, I think, comes from the audience being told beforehand that these are, essentially, direct quotations. Even as you’re watching, there’s a little part of your brain reminding you: “This is real, and therefore it is impactful.”
Related stories: IN FRESNO STATE’S ‘WILDERNESS,’ GOING OFF TO SUMMER CAMP TAKES ON AN ENTIRELY NEW MEANING
AND: A PHOTO DIARY: FRESNO STATE’S ‘WILDERNESS,’ THROUGH A DIRECTOR’S EYES
The uneven Fresno State production of “Wilderness” (one more written by Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger, uses what I’d call a hybrid approach to the form. (Director Kathleen McKinley calls it “docudrama.”) The live-action part of the play is scripted by the playwrights based on interviews they conducted with psychologically troubled teens. These young people – whose issues include anger management, self-harm and struggling with sexual identity – took part in a structured outdoors program that had them tromping through rugged terrain, under the supervision of counselors. In other words, their stories are interpreted and dramatized by the play’s authors.
Meanwhile, another component also figures prominently: The playwrights conducted interviews with the parents of the troubled children. Their exact words are replicated in recorded videos. In the Fresno State version, actors “play” these roles, but in the spirit of verbatim theatre, the exact words are used. For the New York production, the footage of the actual parents being interviewed was used, and perhaps that veracity was enough to give the material enough “docu-authenticity” to increase the emotional impact.
I applaud the The play’s structure makes the material feel diluted. Perhaps the hybrid approach would be more compelling if the storyline were presented in a more straightforward manner. But the extensive use of flashbacks (which did not become readily apparent to me until far too late in the show) and doubled characters (a mom and an interviewer, a “client” and a camp field worker) makes things feel muddled.
Add to that additional characters (including what I assume is the camp’s chief psychologist) who only exist as voices on a phone, and some intriguing intervals of choreography (nicely handled by Koryn Wicks), and it’s a lot for an audience to absorb and keep track of. None of these things by itself necessarily hurts the play, but the cumulative impact weighs it down.
The play is at its strongest when it focuses on the teenagers’ back stories and relationships with each other. Hannah Berry plays Dylan – a transgender, “RENT”-adoring, handbell-choir-loving teen struggling with issues of identity – with a slow-fuse simmer of hurt and resentment. Most astonishing is Dylan’s admission that while their parents warmly accepted news of their child’s gender identity, Dylan continued to lash back at them and even level false accusations of abuse.
Two other acting highlights: Jimmy Haynie is terrific as a world-weary camp counselor trying to break through to one of his charges. And Grant Hill, as an angry young man named Michael, makes an extremely solid Fresno State acting debut, consistently finding notes of despair and humor in his troubled character.
Rene Nielson’s scenic design sets a nice, dusty tone, Regina Harris expertly balances music and recorded video, and Lauren Renea Heard’s lighting design finds nuance and melancholy in desert sunsets. Still, you can make the wilderness look too pretty. I didn’t care for Kristine Doiel’s beautifully color coordinated array of pastel T-shirts worn by the camp attendees, which I think detracted from the grit of the material.
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And gritty it is. One of the most successful things about this production is the insight it gives you into the challenges, loneliness and isolation faced by some teenagers today. It’s a world in which 12-year-olds are as deft with an insult on Snapchat as some cynical bully three times their age. A world in which drugs aren’t so much a rebellion as a ticket out of boredom. A world in which teenagers grow up too fast.
Then again, there’s hope. Maybe even, for Dylan, a handbell-choir version of “Seasons of Love.”