“A Walk in the Woods,” coming to North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, May 29-June 23, 2019 has nothing to do with nature ... except human nature.
Set in the Cold War era, it’s a two-character play in which two arms negotiators, an American and a Russian with widely divergent personalities and points of view, step away from the negotiating table and try tackling their issues in private during a series of strolls in the woods outside Geneva.
It’s all talk, hardly any action, and might easily be called “A Talk in the Woods.”
But the talk is intelligent, emotional and spiked with humor, and the play is a terrific showpiece for a pair of gifted actors. With NCRT’s Artistic Director David Ellenstein as the Russian and J. Todd Adams — last seen here in “Holmes and Watson” and “Blithe Spirit” — as the American, it promises to be a fascinating two-man tour de force.
“It’s never not been timely, and with the nuclear stuff so much in the news these days, it’s even more timely now,” Ellenstein said. “It’s about winnowing things down to the development of a relationship between two very different people. Andrey, the Russian, is older, more worldly, and pretty jaded: he started out with high hopes, but he’s had so many disappointments. John, the American, is still new at the game, he’s idealistic, he’s thinking: I’m gonna make this work! The drama is in the way their relationship builds over time — in four seasons, from late summer to spring. It gives you a little hope that people can get along, even if countries can’t.”
Ellenstein was originally thinking of casting a woman as the Russian. Then he decided to do it himself.
“This is only my fifth time onstage at North Coast Rep in the 16 years I’ve been here,” he said. “It’s harder work now than when I was younger, and I’m also the artistic director of a theater, and raising two teenage sons. But if I want to keep on growing, I need challenges, so here I am.”
To soften the challenge, he’s working with people he knows very well. “It’s just the four of us — J. Todd, Richard Baird (the director) and Aaron Rumley (the production manager), who’s been with us since 2003. And it’s interesting; I first met J. Todd in 2001 in Nevada, where I directed him as Mercutio in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and in 2005 I directed Richard Baird as Mercutio here.”
This time, the directing is in someone else’s hands, but Ellenstein has been talking with playwright Lee Blessing over the past several months. “He seems like a great guy — open, warm and supportive. He’s coming to see us June 7, and we’ll be doing a talkback with him after the show.”
‘A Walk in the Woods’ History
Originally directed by Des McAnuff at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987, “A Walk in the Woods” went on to La Jolla Playhouse (where McAnuff was Artistic Director) and then Broadway in 1988. That same year, it was staged in London, starring Alec Guinness and Edward Herrmann, and made into a TV movie, starring Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky, both from the Broadway production. Along the way, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won Tony and Olivier awards for Best Play.
It was inspired by an actual incident that took place in Geneva in 1982, when two arms negotiators left the official sessions for an unofficial walk in the woods. Although their discussions were productive, both governments rejected the results. Playwright Blessing fictionalized the characters completely, making the Russian older, more experienced and more charming, so that American audiences would be more open to what he said.
In the past decade, Blessing has given his blessing to gender change in either of the characters, to keep up with the changing times, as “women are finding their way ... into our society’s biggest socio-political discussions.”
With or without gender changes, “A Walk in the Woods” continues to be Blessing’s most popular work. Earlier this year, it was recorded for L.A. Theatre Works’ syndicated radio theater series and can now be heard around the world.
• IF YOU GO: “A Walk in the Woods” runs May 29-June 23, 2019 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Tickets: $42-$53. (858) 481-1055. northcoastrep.org