by Jordan Cohen
The documentary theatre piece, Wilderness, written by Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger, and presented by En Garde Arts at the Abrons Arts Center, paints a stark but ultimately hopeful portrait of several teens struggling with an array of personal challenges, such as addiction, mental health, emotional trauma, and aggressive behavior. The characters are participants (some, against their will) in the increasingly popular yet somewhat controversial method of “wilderness therapy,” (which those on the inside refer to simply as “wilderness”) a technique where groups of troubled youth are shipped out into the woods with nothing but the basic necessities to survive, a well-trained field staff, and each other.
Over the course of the play, we get to know two groups of three teens each, one male and one female (Dylan, one of the participants, is transgender but grouped with the boys), played by a talented ensemble of young actors, who struggle to exorcise their demons while attempting, and only sometimes succeeding, to connect with one another despite the deep pain each has boiling within. The play is written in vignettes, switching between scenes of cooking, journaling, participants dealing with anger, rage, panic attacks, and running off. The teens are there for a variety of reasons – self-mutilation, lying about parental abuse, violent behavior, drug abuse – all ailments triggered by such factors as dysfunctional home lives, years of bullying, feelings of isolation, and more. Like an onion, we learn more and more about each participant as the play goes on, through both conventional scenes and monologues delivered to the audience. Their attitudes toward “wilderness” varies; some seem to adapt pretty well while others can’t quite give themselves over.
In her program note, Ms. Hamburger explains that she and Mr. Bockley, who also directs, spent a year in the Utah desert getting to know the very teens depicted in the play. While I assume most of the scenes were based on real events, I don’t imagine they were verbatim, which explains the “written by” credit for the show’s creators. However, Ms. Hamburger and Mr. Bockley intersperse the scripted scenes with actual footage of Skype interviews, projected onto a scrim curtain, which they conducted with the teen’s parents. This injection of the “real” gives us an emotionally wrenching window into what it’s like to, as a parent, feel helpless in the face of your child’s adversity. However, now and then the juxtaposition of interview footage with scripted scenes took some of the punch out of the latter.
The set, by Carolyn Mraz, consists of some water vessels lined up neatly in rows, a laundry line, a short white fence cutting the stage in two, and some other pieces here and there. The lighting design (Scott Bolman), sound design, video, and projections (Mikhail Fiksel did all three) could not be better as they succeed in both eliciting great depths of visceral emotion while also keeping the story moving briskly. Interpretive movement sequences, directed by Devon de Mayo and Patrick McCollum, did not seem entirely necessary but nonetheless fit in with the overall aesthetic of the production.
While some of the stories, at times, seemed to become repetitive, the play ends on an uplifting note as we learn that most of the teens are in recovery and leading productive and, most importantly, happy lives today (There is one heartbreaking exception, which we learn about through a Skype interview toward the end).
Ultimately, Wilderness is an urgent and artful look into some of the enormous struggles that many kids, and their families, experience but often do not know how to confront. In the hands of its talented cast and imaginative creative team, the stories take on incredible life and, in the end, remind us of the importance of truthful connection – with others, yes – but more importantly, with ourselves.
The cast includes Holly DeMorro, Caitlin Goldie, Taylor Noble, Riley Suter, Jake Williams, Luke Zimmerman, and Welker White.
Octobor 21st – November 20th
En Garde Arts in Association with Abrons Arts Center
Present at Abrons Arts Center: 466 Grand Street, New York, New York 10002
For tickets visit https://engardearts.org/wilderness/