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Theatre in Review: Walden (TheaterWorks Hartford)

Gabriel Brown, Jeena Yi. Photo: Christopher Capozziello

Are we looking at a science fiction surge in the theatre? Just yesterday, I posted a review of Alma Baya, about three women fighting for survival on a hostile planet. Now comes Walden, in which three characters face dicey prospects here on earth; indeed, one of them is seriously thinking about fleeing to elsewhere in the solar system. Clearly, months of lockdown have left playwrights pondering the future and not loving what they foresee. Given recent headlines, who can blame them?

Nevertheless, speculative drama is a tricky business. It's not easy to sketch in a persuasive vision of things to come; it involves providing just enough detail to ignite the audience's imagination, and it must be done in service of characters and conflict. On the evidence of Walden, playwright Amy Berryman is skilled at such balancing acts, and a great many other things, too.

The ironies begin with Berryman's title, its echoes of Thoreau reverberating through a world ravaged by climate change. This state of affairs is not immediately apparent, since we are introduced to Bryan and Stella, who occupy a cottage in the wood surrounded by nature at its most verdant. (The production, which I reviewed on video, is being staged through August 29 at a lovely spot on the Connecticut River.) The pair lives simply and happily but tension is in the air, thanks to the expected arrival of Cassie, Stella's semi-estranged sister. Stella, emotionally evasive at the best of times, is obviously on edge, all but commanding Bryan not to mention their engagement.

So far, this sounds like the setup of any one of 10,000 family dramas, but Berryman has plenty of fresh ideas to work with. Stella and Cassie -- short for Cassiopeia -- are the twin daughters of a legendary astronaut and were groomed from an early age to follow him in his footsteps. Cassie, who has just returned from a year on the moon, is part of a NASA program looking to resettle humans on other planets. Like her colleagues, she has washed her hands of life on Earth, much of which has been all but destroyed by wars, pollution, and tsunamis that kill millions. Fair enough, although one of the script's weaknesses is the unlikelihood of this relocation project. But how is it that Stella has bailed from her upbringing, fleeing a distinguished career?

It's quite a tangle in which Berryman has trapped her characters. What Stella doesn't want Cassie to find out is that Bryan is part of a growing back-to-the-land movement that is gradually reclaiming the natural world a few acres at a time. What Bryan doesn't know is that Stella, in her NASA days, created a plan for a habitat that would allow humankind to colonize Mars; he also has little awareness of her ex-lover of many years. What Stella doesn't know is Cassie's plan to retrieve her, for complex reasons that have little to do with science. And then there's the mystery of why Stella threw over her life, abandoning family and friends, to live off the grid.

There's a lot more packed into Berryman's script, including a couple of traumatic deaths, another haunted sibling relationship, and questions about ambition and personal autonomy. Remarkably, the playwright has managed to fuse a pained family conflict -- especially her portrait of sisters racked by a toxic combination of love and competition -- with urgent questions about the environment. Can our warming planet be healed? Can technology solve the problem? Or must we make a massive change of course to ward off disaster?

Berryman has no easy answers, but she confidently guides her characters through powerful conflicts to a poignant finale in which everyone gets what he or she wants -- more or less -- without ignoring the pain that still persists. The play works in part because Mei Ann Teo's production is hyperalert to the subtlest change in the emotional weather, thanks to the intensive work of her cast. Diana Oh captures Stella's opaque, stubborn nature while finding ways to send subtle signals of distress at the right moments; she handles her character's wrenching big revelation with dignity and tact, never slipping into melodrama. Jeena Yi's Cassie is both steely and needy -- not an attractive combination, yet she remains oddly sympathetic throughout. Gabriel Brown nails Bryan's boyish enthusiasm yet he stands up to his co-stars in moments of conflict; he also casually reveals his hidden sadness in a speech about the tragic incident that bedevils his memory.

This is pandemic theatre, staged across an expansive outdoor playing area with live audiences on headsets. Seen on video, the actors are sometimes obscured by You-Shin Chen's otherwise attractive and appropriate set; the video version also relies on long shots more than is necessary, and occasionally the lines can be a little hard to hear. On the other hand, sound designer Hao Bai's effects -- especially the opening sequence, which suggests a rocket launch -- are well-done. Alice Tavener's costumes are well-suited to each character.

Best of all Berryman finds a way to use the future to speak to our present, seeding her drama with ideas that we all need to think about. She's a fresh voice and this production is most welcome, a good sign for the future of the theatre. For information about streaming Walden, which runs through August 29, go to twhartford.org/. --David Barbour

(20 August 2021)

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