David Ellenstein (left) and J. Todd Adams in "A Walk in the Woods." Photo by Aaron Rumley
In its sedate but steely reflection on nuclear disarmament, Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods is both idealistic and cynical, if not fatalistic, at the same time. This is not merely because Soviet negotiator Andrey Botvinnik (David Ellenstein) and his American counterpart John Honeyman (J. Todd Adams) are of different minds. Each in his own way badly wants the strongman nation he represents to make concessions and to see the pathway to peace. But in Blessing’s 1988 play, now onstage at North Coast Repertory Theatre, the more diplomatically battle-scarred Andrey already knows what John, the relative newbie at high-level negotiations, soon learns: that the appearance of negotiating disarmament is the best they can do. It’s even, according to Andrey, the goal of their sensitive dialogues.
Are the madness of nukes and the fruitlessness of negotiation as relevant more than 30 years later? Look no further than the failed U.S.-North Korea talks (and of late, the deadly consequences, under Kim Jong Un’s reign, of that failure). Look no further than Donald Trump boasting of having the bigger nuclear button.
The polemics aside, A Walk in the Woods is a showcase for two actors given the chance to play vivid characters. Andrey is the larger-than-life of the two, a gesturing, charming fellow for whom formality is “argument with its hair combed.” Ellenstein’s portrayal is earnest, understated and full of fun – just the kind of fun that Adams’ sober American diplomat does not want to have. Occupying the less engaging role, Adams succeeds in ultimately conveying John Honeyman’s innate human frailties. Blessing was smart enough not to allow his character study to devolve into a sentimental, opposites-attract buddy story. Andrey’s and John’s bond is their mutual, agonizing frustration.
Richard Baird directs the production with respect for the material and for his actors, while the Swiss woods set by Marty Burnett, just an inviting bench in a bucolic forest clearing with birds chirping high in the trees, is a serene spot for an audience to spend two hours.
For a Cold War drama, A Walk in the Woods has no shortage of warmth.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 6/5/19.)
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.