Two arms negotiators try to end the nightmare in Burning Coal's A Walk in the Woods | Theater | Indy Week
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Two arms negotiators try to end the nightmare in Burning Coal's A Walk in the Woods 

Two men sit at a table, negotiating over the largest stockpile of weapons humanity has ever known. It has to be one of the most disastrous places for a dissociative disorder to occur.

But in the psychological two-person drama A Walk in the Woods, long-term stressors slowly take their toll after a new American nuclear arms negotiator takes a seat across from his Soviet counterpart in Geneva, Switzerland.

This Exit Through Eden production takes the sincerity and good will of its characters at face value, more or less. If doing so robs Lee Blessing's text of potentially significant layers of intrigue, it also sets our focus on the degree to which the process of nuclear arms negotiation itself manipulates, distorts—and potentially corrupts—its participants, independent of any intended machinations by either party.

By the time Blessing wrote this two-character play in 1985, President Reagan had scrapped arms control talks and was preparing to abandon SALT II, the most recently negotiated arms treaty with the Soviet Union (which the U.S. honored—but never ratified—during the 1980s). The year before, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the hands of their famous Doomsday Clock to three minutes before midnight, the closest to zero hour it had been since the 1950s.

In that context, the historical "walk in the woods" that actually took place—an unauthorized, out-of-channels compromise reached between American Paul Nitze and Soviet Yuli Kvitsinsky in 1982—emerged as a figurative and literal voice from the wilderness. Though their gambit failed in the short term, it gave Blessing the background for his drama, and ultimately paved the way for future accords.

Those breakthroughs, however, haven't happened yet at the start or the end of this drama. In a sometimes-comic first act, John Honeyman (J. Chachula), a hard-nosed American negotiator, regards the overtures of his opposite number, Andrey Botvinnik (company founder Eric Hale), warily at first and then with exasperation. But underneath Botvinnik's façade of bonhomie lurks something far darker than cheap, spy-era duplicity: an existential despair bordering on a nihilism that threatens these characters' negotiations and their world.

During the four conversations that constitute the play's two acts, Honeyman and Botvinnik ultimately don't wrestle over treaty terms as much as they do with a number of startling fundamentals. These include the possibilities of hope, trust and friendship—on personal as well as global terms.

Under Marta King's direction, Chachula ably probes the gaffes, impatience, insights and potentially debilitating passions of the American negotiator. But as the seemingly capricious Botvinnik, Hale's conspicuously modulated responses seem at times the model of diplomacy and control. Elsewhere, though, they suggest a lack of range or other artistic options.

Still, actors and director present the warfare that ideas themselves can wage on those who engage them in a frequently thought-provoking production.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ending the nightmare."

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