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A Walk in the Woods

Tue, Jun 6th, 2000
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Monday, May 8, 2000

Can two actors hold an audience's undivided attention for nearly two hours, with nothing more than a script and a sparse stage? In the case of Commonweal Theatre Company's A Walk in the Woods, which opened at the St. Mane Theatre in Lanesboro on Friday, May 5, the answer is an unequivocal Yes.

This is a masterful play about the serious business of warheads and missile silos and the fate of planet earth. But don't be scared off by the topic. This drama is full of humanity and expectations and hope for mankind. It is both serious drama and high entertainment.

A Walk in the Woods is a conversation between two arms negotiators, an American and a Russian, set in a woods outside of Geneva, Switzerland in the mid '80's. The Russian, Andrey Botvinnik, played by Commonweal veteran Hal Cropp, is a seasoned diplomat who has been negotiating arms treaties with the Americans for years. His counterpart is the newly appointed American negotiator John Honeyman, played by Brett Marston, a newcomer to the Lanesboro stage

While Botvinnik is a wizened old hand at the negotiating table, a patient emissary who knows the detente game well, Honeyman is eager for results, out to prove that the trust the President has placed in him is not misguided. He is full of formality and is bewildered by Botvinnik's invitation to take a walk in the woods at the end of a negotiating session.

In the opening scene, a suspicious Honeyman asks the Russian, "Why are we here?" "To see the woods," Botvinnik replies. "To relax, with no table between us. To become friends."

The concept of friendship is alien to the American, who wants to negotiate results first, then decide whether the two should become friends. But the Russian wants to do away with formality. "Formality is simply anger with its hair combed," Botvinnik tells Honeyman.

The balance of the play continues to build on the relationship between the two men against the tense backdrop of arms negotiations. In the beginning, the American is distant, seeking singular answers to complex problems.

In the second Act, we begin to understand the two sides in geo-political terms.
"History equals geography over time," Botvinnik instructs his younger colleague - America is protected by its oceans, while Russia is flat land open to invasion by the hordes. "America is conquest without competition. Russia is conquest with competition," the statesman explains.
"And what is the result of all of this history and geography? We are enemies," Botvinnik concludes.

By Act III, after some political squabbles have prevented an agreement by the two governments, the two men reach a compromise that they believe their leaders can live with. The break through is brought about by the understanding the two men have for each other and the circumstances that guide decision making in their repsective countries. And the two negotiators leave the woods with great hope.

In the final Act, we find the two men arriving at true friendship. The arms deal has fallen through and the two sides begin to start all over again.
"Some decisions are too big to make," Botvinnik says philosophically to a disappointed Honeyman.

A Walk in the Woods is as current today as it was when it was first staged in 1988 (the Russian parliament recently ratified START II, which commits the U.S. and the Soviet Union to reduce their strategic nukes to roughly 3,500 by 2007). Written by playwright Lee Blessing, the Broadway production starred Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky and was nominated for a Tony. The play has even been performed in Moscow.

Blessing's work is noted for its social and political commentary, and A Walk in the Woods is true to form. This is an actor's play, tightly crafted with rich, flowing dialogue.

Cropp is at the top of his game as Botvinnik. From the northern European accent to the mannerisms that he brings to the elder Botvinnik, Cropp's portrayal is convincing as the Russian statesman.

Marston, as the American, brings a nervous energy to the negotiating table, a counterpoint in personality to the older Russian. Marston is fully in control of his character, making the audience believe that they are seeing an American diplomat at work, eager to save the world from itself.

These are two demanding roles, requiring high energy, tremendous concentration and strong acting. Both performers bring honor to their craft.

Los Angeles Director Alan Bailey uses Blessings's use of irony to punctuate the humor in the play, but otherwise lets the dialogue run its natural course. The set, designed by Tom Berger and Jeff Dintaman, is typically St. Mane Theatre minimalist, exceptionally done with large wooden panels, rep-resenting different species of trees, spaced throughout the stage. A park bench in the middle of the stage provides a central point from which the two actors engage in conversa-tion.

In A Walk in the Woods, Commonweal continues a long-standing legacy of performing serious theatre in rural Minnesota. And it is to their success that A Walk in the Woods, will be talked about in the future as one of the best plays they have ever staged.

A Walk in the Woods plays May 5 through July 15. For ticket information call 1-800-657-7025 or 507-467-2525.

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