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Theater is designed to make people think and feel, and that’s exactly what “A Walk in the Woods” delivers.
For the next two weekends, Bob Moore and Gary Ketzenbarger star in the production at the Lake Dillon Theatre.
Lee Blessing wrote “A Walk in the Woods” in 1988; arms talks during the Cold War inspired Blessing’s dialogue between a Russian and American negotiator. (Note: This play is not to be confused with “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” by Bill Bryson.)
While watching two men talk on a bench for two hours doesn’t sound very intriguing, Moore and Ketzenbarger (as well as directors Wendy Moore and G. Thomas Cochran) present the drama in an extremely absorbing manner. The fact that the two veteran actors portray real-life events, which took place in 1982 between Cold War nuclear arms reduction negotiators Paul Nitze (American) and Yuli Kvitsinsky, makes “A Walk in the Woods” even more compelling.
The play begins with Andre Botvinick (Moore), a 57-year-old career Soviet diplomat, insisting that newbie American negotiator John Honeyman (Ketzenbarger) sit and chat in the woods after tense table talks. John wants nothing to do with trivial talk or friendship building; he has traveled to Geneva, Switzerland for one reason, and one reason only: to incite peace during turbulent times. He prefers to remain formal, to which Andre replies: “Formality is simply anger with its hair combed.” In other words, it’s only possible to build trust in informal situations, such as Geneva’s beautiful woods.
Ketzenbarger and Moore skillfully draw audiences into their engaging characters, transporting people back to the tense parley, upon which the world’s safety still depends. At first, the overarching question revolves around trust: Is Andre’s friendliness trustworthy, or is he simply trying to manipulate the younger, less experienced American?
Both men speak bluntly. For example, Andre declares that if negotiators met at a missile silo, rather than the clean and pristine city of Geneva, the two Superpowers would reach a treaty. Andre’s candor seems genuine, but John’s accusations that Andre changes the subject and contradicts himself as a ploy raises questions about the Russian’s integrity and motives. This tension captures the audience’s attention through the first act of the play.
The second act deepens into even more grave issues, and the dry-eye syndrome Andre suffers from becomes a poignant symbol. Most importantly, the two characters reveal their humanity as they share their deepest thoughts and feelings about international arms-control negotiations.
“I only hope that the real negotiators have the same sense of humanity as the two characters in this play,” Moore said.
This sense of vulnerability and true compassion enables the men to communicate on a more significant level. Ketzenbarger views the main theme of the production as “the fundamental fact that the world cannot function without a meaningful baseline of trust between any two parties on any number of issues …”
“The themes of the play are perhaps even more relevant today,” writes Christine Hill Smith, associate professor of communications and humanities at the Roaring Fork Campus of Colorado Mountain College, in notes handed out when Moore and Ketzenbarger performed the play there in December. “… Post-9/11 war and peace negotiations are as complex and perilous as ever. If we can’t find a way to agree, we may not be able to find a way to survive.”
Though Smith’s comment generates alarm, “A Walk in the Woods” creates more of an alert awareness and a level of confidence in humanity to protect its own survival. In the end, Andre redefines failure with an eerie undertone – one that may linger in audience’s minds and hearts long into the New Year.
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