Two names have been on my mind since attending Street Corner Arts' production of A Walk in the Woods – but they're not the names you might expect. Despite the solid pair of actors who give voice to this seriocomedic two-hander, the names circling in my brain belong to set designers Patrick and Holly Crowley. For the second time in a month, I've walked into Austin Playhouse's storefront abode in Highland Mall only to be struck with such beauty and precision – a set spinning a tale onstage well before the acting ever began.
It's not hard to surmise from the title that Lee Blessing's play takes place in the woods – specifically, the placid barks of Switzerland. However, the pseudo-trees spectacularly suggested by the Crowleys' towering, treelike installations – the set flirts with realism but ultimately decides on abstraction – are devoid of depth, their two-dimensionality setting us at an ominous distance. Yes, these woods are welcoming and serene – especially to Soviet arms negotiator Andrey Botvinnik, played with subtle, sympathetic sincerity by Michael Stuart – but, as designed by the Crowleys, they also suggest starkness, even a down-to-business attitude more reflective of Botvinnik's American counterpart, John Honeyman (a visceral and teeming Benjamin Summers). The Crowleys know how to support the rhetorical landscape of Blessing's dialogue while at the same time contributing mightily to director A. Skola Summers' vision. Their set never gets in the way of either, though. We see the details they're providing us, but somehow they don't threaten to upstage anything. Once we've been struck by the expansive qualities of the narrative artwork onstage, it's as though we gain an immediate trust of that environment as spectators, allowing it to factor ever so subconsciously into the unwinding drama. And I would be remiss not to mention Don Day's lighting, illuminating the proceedings with far more than simple utility. After all, successful sets rarely exist without successful lighting.
Inhabiting this set are the aforementioned Stuart and Summers, each of whom gives a smart, fulfilling performance. At all times believable and vulnerable, Stuart's Botvinnik draws one in to such a degree that it's often difficult to glance away. Summers' fiery Honeyman achieves a broad character arc nicely, though the actor occasionally pushes the boundaries of sincerity too far. Still, this is a high-quality production any way you slice it.
But while thinking about that wondrous set, I've also been pondering why I didn't experience as visceral a reaction to the show as I'd hoped. Perhaps it's because the 1988 play feels to me like a bit of a museum piece? Sure, the moral of the story is as fresh today as it was then, and it's certainly a function of the theatre to reconsider the past. It's not difficult to invest in the proceedings, just that this thin mountain air seems a bit musty.
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