Quotidian Theatre Company heats up the Cold War with Lee Blessing’s classic, A Walk in the Woods. Quotidian’s mission is to present theater about real life with “no-frills acting“ or special effects but with big themes and important truths. A Walk in the Woods fits perfectly in their repertoire. It is a deceptively simple piece about two men who take a walk in the woods. They are arms negotiators – one Russian, one American – in the 1980s that carve out a relationship away from the negotiating table and prying eyes. The play was nominated for a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
The strongest part of the play and why it will stand the test of time is the dynamic of mentorship that grows between the older Russian and young American. At one point, when things are going badly, Honeyman (Brit Herring) pressures Botvinnik (Steve LaRocque) to make a move and the Russian shrugs and says, “I have failed before.” Honeyman shouts, “I haven’t!”
Other parts of the play have not aged all that well. There is a significant amount of arms negotiating going on and the playwright sometimes uses his characters as an excuse to preach – getting in some good jabs at war, elections and politics. I know there was a time when people were truly and daily frightened by nuclear arms and we probably still should be, but in a post 9-11 world where our enemies brought us to our knees with box cutters, a play warning again and again about the nuclear threat does not pack the same punch.
It’s these two actors that make the play. They have built up such unique personalities and a strong relationship, you keep watching, even through the Cold War maneuvering. Quotidian veteran Steve LaRocque (Andrey Botvinnik) plays the older experienced Russian negotiator who has already grown weary and ekes what humor out of the process. LaRocque has a believable Russian accent. His physical acting was great to watch; the way he used his hands was wonderful, every gesture deliberate and poetic. He also has good comic timing and most of the humor belongs to him. At one point he says, “Without nuclear weapons we would be nothing more than an enormous Poland.”
Brit Herring (John Honeyman) has a challenging role as the earnest, enthusiastic young American. To always be the straight guy standing up for the punches is tough, but he pulls it off in his bow tie and glasses. His acting is crisp and sometimes he sounds like someone out of a 1950’s screwball comedy more than an arms negotiator, but he draws you in well. Just the way he perches on that bench throughout the entire play is impressive and fits the character exactly, back ramrod straight and knees together.
Director Gillian Drake in her first time at Quotidian has a challenge to keep a play about two men on a bench visually interesting – and she succeeds by sending one man bird watching or collecting leaves or standing on the bench. She keeps the pace of the play up but exploits every personal moment between the characters.
The actors’ costumes change over the changing seasons – with Honeyman donning the ubiquitous trench coat and Botvinnik wearing a fur hat through the winter scene, but both kept their dapper and timeless suits throughout.
The set by Samina Vieth is deceptively simple with the all important wooden bench center stage and a painted backdrop of woods behind it with real trees, pinecones, and forest spread in a semi-circle around the bench. The seasons change throughout the play and leaves and flowers are added. It does feel like a far away Swiss meadow. The sound design by Ed Moser assists in that illusion with a soundtrack of birds and forest noises to complete the effect as well as wonderful traditional Swiss music to mark each scene change. The play is set in Geneva.
Neither Russians nor the arms race are the same threat they once were, but men are pretty much the same and Blessing creates a very special relationship between two in A Walk in the Woods. Old and young, jaded and idealist, LaRocque and Herring create a powerful friendship in a moving night of theater.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.