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Review: ‘Wilderness’ at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater

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The Kennedy Center recently presented En Garde Arts’ touring production of Wilderness, a multimedia show that discusses the real-life accounts of young teens who struggle with mental health. The piece focuses on six families, each at a point of helplessness, who turn to a program in Utah for troubled teens, called Wilderness. The show is a harsh but deeply moving representation of the realities of mental illness and the comfort in comradery and acknowledgement, accented with silent expressions of pain through movement.

Video clips included in the show are actual footage of conversations with the parents of teens in the program, while the performers portray the kids and counselors, with one character simply titled The Mom. The cast includes Holly DeMorro (Chloe/Rebecca), Caitlin Goldie (Elizabeth), Taylor Noble (Sophia/Merritt), Scott Freeman (Cole/Corey), Jake Williams (Michael/Taco), Luke Zimmerman (Dylan/Billy), and Jan Leslie Harding (The Mom).

The touring production of Wilderness. Photo courtesy of En Garde Arts.

Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger co-wrote the documentary theater piece. Seth Bockley also directed, with Devon de Mayo and Patrick McCollum co-directing the movement. The scenes frequently transition from focusing on one teen’s particular story, to a moment with a group from the program, then conversations with the Mom video-chatting with various parents, to choreographed pieces with the entire cast. The sound and lighting design (by Mikhail Fiksel and Scott Bolman respectively) smoothly blend the moments and allow the show to maintain a fluid consistency.

Co-writer Hamburger speaks of her personal experience with this subject in the show’s program. She explains, “When an intervention became necessary with my own child, I began to explore the struggles of other families. I embraced the process of discovery around the complexities of parenting and acted upon my need […] to lift the veil of secrecy and shame around issues of mental health.”

Depression, drug addiction, sexual abuse, and self-harm are just a few of the topics that are touched on. While each featured family’s experience is incredibly different, the commonality between them is the terrifying reality of having no idea what to do to make their situations better. Some of the parents don’t know what has happened in their child’s life that could trigger their behavior. Even some of the kids can’t quite put their finger on exactly why they are torn-up inside. But that is the nature of the disease. Mental illness is not a broken bone to be set or a virus to be killed.

Wilderness is incredibly personal and the performances are brilliantly real to the point of discomfort, as if the audience is peering in on these exceptionally sensitive and raw times in the families’ lives. Still, the discomfort is necessary. Mental illness is not an easy topic. And while the stigma of mental illness is being slowly chipped away in society, seeking help is still seen as a weakness. And having a child with mental illness is felt as a failure.

The touring production of Wilderness. Photo courtesy of En Garde Arts.

McCollum and de Mayo’s movement accentuates the unsettling and inconsistent torment of mental illness. The Mom walks through the teens, trying to reach out to embrace them. Some instantly turn away, while another will extend their hand, seeking the comfort, only to recoil seconds later.

Another touching sequence has the teens wearing the red sweatshirts, which identify them as a part of the Wilderness program. One slowly pulls the sweatshirt on, another rips it off and throws it to the ground, and another struggles somewhere in between, clearly torn between whether or not to keep it on. The sweatshirts seemingly represent the therapy itself and the kids’ struggle to accept their circumstances and need for help. And that, I believe, is a large part of what this production addresses: Acceptance.

In order to fix a problem, heal a wound, or mend a fractured relationship, the truth of the situation must be acknowledged. Mental illness has to be addressed face on, with the all the messy details out in the open. It is not as easy, as one of the parents realizes in a clip, as packing up your kid and sending them off to be fixed and returned back to normal.

En Garde Arts’ production delves deep into the heart-wrenching battle of teens and mental illness. The pain in Wilderness is jarring, but the show provides an inside look at some of the families who have wrestled, and continue to wrestle, with the disease, shining light on the fact that, as Hamburger explains, “mental health, like making art, is a life’s work.”

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Wilderness played through Sunday October 15, 2017 at En Garde Arts performing at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to upcoming events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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