By Margie Royal
At one time, Delaware County residents would have to take a trek into Center City Philadelphia to see a play like “The Great Wilderness” by Samuel Hunter, now on the Players Club of Swarthmore’s Second Stage through Nov. 18. Thankfully, both the Players Club of Swarthmore and Spotlight Theatre aren’t afraid to challenge their audiences and offer new works that are financially “risky”. PCS’ “A Great Wilderness” director Anthony SanFilippo encountered this play while in Seattle on business. It was being staged at the Seattle Repertory Theatre and he bought a ticket. He said he waited for it to come East, but it had an unfavorable NYC reception so this six-character play has not had a wide viewing. The PCS production is most certainly a Delaware County premiere and likely a Philadelphia-area premiere as well.
The plot may likely be the reason why the play isn’t more widely produced. The subject matter deals with a young teenage boy dealing with his sexuality. When his parents find him watching a video of two men having sex, he is sent to a Christian conversion camp to set him “straight.” From that plot description you might expect an angry, bitter script with villanous Christians self-righteously spouting their idealogy. But “A Great Wilderness” isn’t that at all. Like peeling an onion, the play, in short scenes, introduces its story and characters. And, just as in life where repeated encounters reveal a person’s story and sensibility, so does this play reveal its people and their story. Each of the characters has a tangled depth which has shaped their viewpoint. The pleasure in watching this play comes from slowly seeing these characters reveal their personal truths through their interaction with one another.
Of course, if you do not have a strong ensemble cast, “A Great Wilderness” would fall flat. Thankfully, the PCS cast is quite up to the task of creating multi-dimensional characters. Oliver Feaster as the young boy, Daniel, does a great job bringing to life a frightened, confused young teen. George Mulford, as Walt, the aging man who welcomes Daniel to the cabin in the woods of Idaho, also shows us a man fighting against oncoming dementia as well as struggling to ensure the camp and its mission continues. Lisa Eckley Cocchiarale and Timothy Oskin play a married couple whose stories and personal viewpoints add to the unraveling of this intriguing character-study drama. Ruth Boate does a nice job as concerned Park Ranger Janet. Kim Shimer plays Daniel’s mother, Eunice, and show us a woman filled with love and an uncertainty tinged with guilt over the choice she has made to send her son to te camp.
The play’s title, “A Great Wilderness”, I saw a referring to the great wilderness of choices we make, and how we may damage the lives of others by forcing them to travel a certain path to align with our choices. But this is subtle: the ensemble acting and the short, snapshot scenes build to an unexpected end that will ask you to draw your own conclusions.
Kudos to Director SanFilippo and his strong cast for a sensitive and intriguing production of “A Great Wilderness.”
Also kudos to set designer Jim Carroll for turning the Second Stage into a rustic and remote cabin in the wilderness with wooden slat walls and a wood stove. Alan Stamford’s lighting design is also well done.
If you like seeing newer plays and plays that are character-driven, be sure and see “A Great Wilderness.”
The Players Club’s second stage is not handicapped-accessible.
Remaining performances are November 11 at 8 p.m., November 12 at 2 p.m., November 16 at 7:30, November 17 and 18 at 8. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door, or in advance at www.pcstheater.org or 866-811-4111. The Players Club is located at 614 Fairview Road in Swarthmore, PA.