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Without Water, Compass, or Food: Getting Lost in “A Great Wilderness” by Falcon Theatre

Review by Alan Jozwiak of A Great Wilderness: Falcon Theatre

A Gay conversion camp.

This is the least likely place to set a play, but it’s the setting for Falcon Theatre’s latest production, Samuel D. Hunter’s A Great Wilderness.  Known for such plays as The Whale and A Bright New Boise, Hunter’s plays explore the spiritual heart of the state of Idaho.

While the play is set in a gay conversion camp in Idaho, the audience is spared watching any conversions taking place.  Instead, A Great Wilderness explores what happens when Daniel (Caleb Farley) gets lost in the woods after coming to a gay conversion camp in the depths of the Idaho wilderness.

Retiring camp counselor Walt (Allen R. Middleton) takes on Daniel’s case to the consternation of his ex-wife Abby (Arlene Borock-Balczo) and his fellow counselor Tim (Kelly Hale). As Walt deals with self-recrimination at losing Daniel and his failing memory, he also has to deal with Eunice (Holly Sauerbrunn), Daniel’s worried mother, and a helpful Park Ranger Janet (Cat Cook).

Director Clint Ibele skillfully elicits sympathy for Walt while not passing judgement on his life’s work.  This was an impressive accomplishment because of the disreputable nature of gay conversion camps (they are condemned by every major medical and psychological organization in the United States).  The tone of this play could have easily become strident or partisan without Ibele’s care to give the audience the opportunity to see things from Walt’s point of view.  In so doing, we are asked not to agree with Walt, but merely understand where he comes from.

Allen R. Middleton’s portrayal of Walt was a study of understated acting excellence.  Middleton garners sympathy through his unassuming air and all-to-human struggle of dealing with memory loss and possibly dementia.  Middleton shines in his role when he plays off the gay teenager Daniel, as well as defending his choices to his ex-wife.  This was the best role I’ve seen Middleton perform and it was a standout performance.

Without going into detail in each of the characters, two other actors had nicely crafted supporting roles within this play were Holly Sauerbrunn and Cat Cook.  Holly Sauerbrunn’s Eunice captured the deep despair of a women who realizes that her son is gay and is powerless to accept that fact that her son might be loss—both in the wilderness forever, as well as lost from her because of his sexual identity.  Falcon newcomer Cat Cook plays a well-crafted Ranger Janet.  Cook was about the carry the weight of her responsibilities while also be caring and compassionate for Walt and his troubles.

While this play was not as strong as other Hunter plays I’ve seen (the play ends very abruptly without resolving a few of the conflicts that are raised within the play), the caliber of acting by Middleton and the solid direction by Ibele makes this a play that should not be missed.

A Great Wilderness runs May 4 to 19 (Thursday through Saturdays) at 8 pm in the Monmouth Street Theatre, 636 Monmouth St, Newport, KY 41071.  For more information on tickets, visit the Falcon Theatre’s website http://falcontheater.net/current-season/great-wilderness/.