Lee Blessing play from 1987 centers on two nuclear-arms negotiators who struggle with the meaning of their mission
In college, around the time Lee Blessing was writing “A Walk in the Woods,” I took a class on the subject of nuclear war. The essential premise was: Will it happen soon, or slightly less soon?
So: Good to be here, thanks.
If the specter of a thermonuclear superpower throwdown is no longer the No. 1 cause of jitters du jour in this age of “asymmetric threats,” the dangers can still feel real in Blessing’s absorbing 1987 story of two arms negotiators — one from the Soviet Union, one from America.
(And those are dangers not just to the rest of us but to the negotiators themselves: Witness the recent report that North Korea may have executed one of its own envoys after the collapse of nuke-related talks with Donald Trump in February.)
While the fictional emissaries in Blessing’s play, which just opened a thoughtful and well-acted revival under Richard Baird’s direction at North Coast Rep, might not face that same kind of imminent extinction, they do struggle mightily with the meaning of their mission.
At the heart of this crisis of conscience: Are they simply window dressing, a way to lull people into believing their two countries actually care about nuclear non-proliferation, while year after year the atomic arsenals expand?
On that count, Blessing is decidedly non-reassuring, and the starkness of his message makes for a bracing contrast with the quiet beauty of the play’s forest setting and the genuine humor that runs through the piece.
As the cheerfully resigned Soviet envoy Andrey Botvinnik (played by NCRT artistic chief David Ellenstein) says: “If mankind hated war, there would be millions of us and only two soldiers.”
When his more buttoned-down American counterpart, John Honeyman (J. Todd Adams), chides Andrey later for being “profoundly cynical,” he replies with a hearty, “Thank you!”
“A Walk in the Woods” takes its name from the pair’s practice of seeking refuge from pressure and press attention by meeting in a leafy Swiss forest near the site of official negotiations. (“Here, there is no table,” as Andrey observes.)
Andrey is the seasoned veteran and John is the newcomer. But they already know plenty about each other — how Andrey is nicknamed “The Crab” for never talking in a straight line, or how John has yet to prove himself at this rarefied level of talks.
Blessing skillfully delineates the differences between the avuncular Andrey and the uptight John, and NCRT’s two actors prove adept both at inhabiting those characters and tracing the ways their relationship shifts toward play’s end.
Andrey dominates the play early on, as he gleefully goads John, and Ellenstein invests him with appealing warmth and wit and an expansive physicality. He also speaks in a convincing-enough Russian accent without laying it on too thick.
Adams cuts a dignified figure as John, and we sympathize with how comically flustered he gets over Andrey’s virtuoso talents for changing the subject and going off on non sequiturs.
When the two finally seem to reach some common ground in the second half of the two-hour, one-intermission show, it’s in their shared sense of crisis over the meaning of their work. (One chance connection to the present does come up: There is talk of gamesmanship around the U.S. elections, long before the Internet became a new front for warfare.)
Blessing can seem a bit too wedded to the idea of tracking his characters’ meetings through all four seasons; the gambit stretches out a play that really might be better as an intermission-free, propulsive 90 minutes or so.
But Marty Burnett’s graceful, tree-studded set is a thing of beauty, Aaron Rumley’s sound design is fittingly brooding, and Matt Novotny’s shifting, eye-catching lighting and Elisa Benzoni’s costumes feel right in tune with the time and mood.
And as pointless as the talks feel at times to Andrey and John, one thing they can agree on: It’s better than silence, and all that would imply.
“A Walk in the Woods”
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 23.
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Tickets: $42-$53 (discounts available)
Phone: (858) 481-1055