Sometimes, when you’re tackling a tricky task, it can be beneficial to take a break. A pause for the cause. A stroll around the block.
And if the subject you’re struggling with is brokering a disarmament agreement between two of the world’s testiest superpowers, nothing less than “A Walk in the Woods” will do.
John Honeyman and Andrey Botvinnik, two arms control negotiators for America and the Soviet Union, respectively, take just such a repose in the latest revival of Lee Blessing’s hit drama, an inD Theatre production directed by Ken Michels, starring Joel Underwood and John Ellis as the heavily burdened bureaucrats.
Though they could not be more different — Honeyman, the younger of the two, is idealistic and strictly by-the-book, ready to roll up his sleeves and solve the world’s problems right now; Botvinnik has the zen patience and more nuanced perspective of a lifelong government servant — the two men stroll in the woods of Geneva, Switzerland in the gorgeous late summer weather, away from the glare of the negotiating table, and eventually develop a relationship that arguably leads to a political breakthrough.
It depends on who you ask.
Reportedly, the plot was “suggested by a real-life incident,” which occurred in 1982, when negotiators Paul H. Nitze and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky left the Geneva sessions for an unofficial field trip to the nearby woodland and achieved a breakthrough — which was promptly rejected by both governments.
However, they were eventually credited with laying the groundwork for the subsequent Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987, which eliminated all of the two nations’ land-based, mid-range nuclear missiles.
But in a “we’ll see” subsequent twist that would make the pragmatically philosophical Botvinnik smirk, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the INF Treaty earlier this year, a move copied 24 hours later by Russia.
It seems everything old is new again, even Cold War tension.
Likewise, though the play was first presented at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Connecticut back in 1987, the material has lost none of its timeliness.
“We were halfway through doing this play when Trump pulled out of the INF,” said Ellis, who plays the Russian negotiator. “As soon as you stop communication it just lets people go back into their burrows and assume the worst about the other person.”
Underwood, who plays the officious American, said the play excels when the plot boils down international disagreements to problems of individual perspective.
“We want to make these things so complicated and yet you can’t ignore human relationships, you just can’t,” he said. “They’ve done studies, they’ve actually done psychological studies that as you put groups together as the physical strength of the group goes up the collective IQ of the group goes down; to the point where if you get a group of fourth-grade boys together, if you get 20 of them, they have the effective strength of a Sherman tank and the effective IQ of a toy schnauzer.”
Multiply that scenario to the size of a large nation or two, add in some nuclear weapons and inflexible leaders, and you start to see the Atlas-like burden carried by the play’s protagonists.
“If you start researching the various treaties, there were a lot of things in the air in the ’80s,” Ellis said. “[Mikhail] Gorbachev had come into power and expressed an interest in trying to make some things happen … it was financially essential for the Soviet Union, if they were to survive — which they didn’t — but if they were going to survive they had to tamp down this arms race; it was bankrupting them.”
“Meanwhile,” Underwood agreed, “you’ve got [President Ronald] Reagan standing in front of the Berlin Wall going, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ and really taking a posture of the champion of the West. Which, that’s all well and good, but at the end of the day your guys have to get in a room and negotiate with their guys and you can’t just rattle your saber all day long.”
The sparsely populated, one-locale show is quite different from director Michels’ usual fare — he has helmed for Bainbridge Performing Arts such intricate, operatic spectacles as “Big Fish,” “Mary Poppins, “Shrek” and “Avenue Q,” among others — but a challenge he said he was eager to undertake upon hearing the cast.
“This is the type of show that people don’t come to me for, but this is the type of show that I revel in,” Michels said. “I like heart and I like passion, I like compassion, and I like relationships.
“It’s not much work on this side,” he laughed.
“[The actors] bring a lot to the table and I knew they would. When I was approached by the producers, saying Joe and John are doing this, I went, ‘OK.’ Because I want to work with the best, and whenever you work in the business you want to work with the best, and whether they think they’re the best or not in my idea their persona and what they do is the best because they give their all, they dig in, they keep asking questions.”
“A Walk in the Woods” will be staged at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art auditorium, at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 18; Friday, April 19; Sunday, April 21; Thursday, April 25; Friday, April 26; and Sunday, April 28; and at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 20 and April 27. Also, the show will have a limited run at Freehold Theatre in Seattle (517 Maynard Ave. South) at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 2 through Saturday, May 4, plus 2 p.m. Sunday, May 5.
Admission is free, with reservation. Visit www.indtheatre.org to learn more.